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Opponent Defense Preview: ASU

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Less boom-or-bust, more actually good.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 30 Washington State at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Intros? Still dumb. So let’s not...

Personnel and What to Expect

Let’s start off with what I associate with the ASU defense (and will for quite some time):

Unlike the Todd Graham years, where they blitzed on an ungodly amount of plays with zero regard for whether or not doing so made sense, this defense prefers to send fewer and let clogged up passing lanes aid the sacks; in fact they’re only blitzing around 20% of the time.

The result is a way less erratic, high-risk high-reward defense. They’re averaging over six tackles for loss per game — 27th in the country and second-best in the Pac-12 after Utah — but a middling 2.33 sacks per game; they tend to squeeze the pocket more often than they actually get home against the quarterback. But they still do a good job making opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable even if they don’t sack him much, and the end result and consistency is way improved from what we became used to under Graham.

USC from the initial drive was a good demonstration of this. The first drive, Kedon Slovis took a long time after the snap to get the ball out simply because ASU’s back seven blanketed the field. The pass rush wasn’t wreaking a bunch of havoc, but they also didn’t let Slovis (or Jaxson Dart, when he’d come in the game later with USC’s #genius two quarterback system) feel comfortable within the pocket either.

On the other hand, the turning point in the Utah game — wherein the Utes at first looked like crap and then in the second half demolished ASU — began not coincidentally when quarterback Cam Rising began to break down the Sun Devils’ zone and anticipate throwing lanes before the line could get to him. Alongside this was a healthy mixture of planned roll outs and Rising taking yardage on the ground when an outlet would open up.

The beginning of that Utah comeback also included a few over-the-shoulder catches where Utah tight ends were draped by an ASU defender in man coverage and just out-muscled them.

Otherwise, though, this is a more capable secondary than we used to see under Graham teams that left outmatched defensive backs on an island and wished them luck. Along with the linebackers in coverage, they anticipate underneath routes and read plays well; opposing pass-catchers have to deal with lots of bang-bang plays where they catch the ball and a millisecond later are rocked. Or, when quarterbacks aren’t exceptionally accurate, their target will often reach the ball only for an ASU defensive back to reach it at the same time. They break plays up at the spot with precision and get interceptions just by out-physicalling receivers fighting for the same ball that was thrown just a foot too far in one direction or the other.

This opportunism shows up statistically, as they’re tied at fourth in the country with nine interceptions. And between this improved defensive line and more friendly scheming, ASU’s allowing on average just below 200 yards per game through the air.

And, unlike Washington, whose first-nationally pass defense amounts to nothing because of run defense mediocrity plus opposing offenses not having any urgency because their own offense is incapable of scoring, ASU’s run defense is actually functional.

They’re 36th in the country and are giving up just less than 130 yards per game on the ground. While Pro Football Focus should be taken with a grain of salt, ASU NT DJ Davidson is the highest graded internal lineman in the Pac-12 and considered by PFF as one of the top in the country, especially effective against the run.

It’s also interesting that they trot out a non-nickel package way more often than you usually see in college, especially in the Pac. They have four genuine down linemen regardless, and their inside linebackers are quite fluid and instinctual dropping back into zone coverage.

All that’s not too surprising, considering almost every listed “starter” is either a senior or grad student. If there’s a group of people who should be able to read the rhythm of a play and know their job, it’s 11 dudes who’ve been around for a while.

There isn’t any obvious weakness on this defense, although one uniting factor between successful offensive plays is that the ball-carrier is able to quickly turn upfield and get vertical momentum moving. Granted, that’s generally true regardless of which defense I’m talking about, but it stood out here since there really aren’t that many successful trends otherwise. Some examples that stood out included a shifty but forward-moving tunnel screen by Gary Bryant (I think it was him, anyway, but don’t crucify me if I’m wrong), and some off-edge running plays with decisive cutting upfield from the running back. All of this came down to vision and discipline.

Overall, the Sun Devils are 26th in the country in points allowed (around 20 per game). This is only two spots behind Washington — the two Alabama P5s separate them — but unlike Washington, the components of their defense are way more balanced, plus their offense doesn’t constantly leave them out to dry.

In fact, their opponents didn’t cross the 30 point mark until the back-to-back losses against Utah and Wazzu. This is all despite their offense occasionally deciding to put them in crappy positions. Because, even though I just said “their offense doesn’t constantly leave them out to dry,” the key word there was “constantly.”

Because really, when the Devils do have defensive issues, it feels like these are often brought on by their own offense pulling shenanigans. Take for example the loss against Utah, where ASU dominated the first half only for their offense to score zero points in the second, giving Utah disproportionate possession and tiring out the Sun Devils for the Utes to score 28 unanswered. Or WSU, where the offense committed five turnovers. Giving up 34 points in those circumstances is pretty alright, I’d say.

Similarly, this can be a team that just doesn’t get out of their own way. Their defense is quite good — but also is known for committing many poorly-timed penalties. Take, for example, a fantastic defensive play against USC where the pass rush all collapsed the pocket together, Dart threw an inaccurate bomb to the end zone, and it was intercepted by DB Kejuan Markham only for the play to be overturned and USC taken to the red zone due to an ASU facemask.

Indeed, they’re tied for 125th in the country in “fewest penalties per game” at 8.78, and 124th in penalty yards per game at almost 80. Not, uh... not great.

Still though, other than shooting themselves in the foot, this should be one of, if not the best in-conference defense UW’s seen so far.

Bottom Line

Pretty much, this team is like if Washington had a better run defense and an offense that only shat the bed, say, half the time. So, if there was ever an opportunity for Junior Adams to prove he’s less dumb than John Donovan by looking at an opposing defense’s particular strengths and not playing directly towards them, now’s a good time.

That is, the running backs and receivers won’t need a bunch of space with the ball, but they’ll still need some space to have a chance at making anything happen. As much as we loooove* screens, Jalen McMillan and especially Rome Odunze could be quite useful if they were given a couple opportunities to make something with those since they both have good vision with the ball and move forward decisively.

Complementing that, Cade Otton should get a lot of targets (how often have we said that the last few weeks?). The fact is that Washington pass-catchers will have to make a lot of contested catches — knowing this, you may as well make ASU defenders contest these catches against a guy who has a massive strength and size advantage over them. Otherwise, receivers will have a hard challenge holding on to the ball, but they’ll have to be able to haul some tough catches in to give the Dawgs even a bit of a chance.

*Do not love screens

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.