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Film Study: Arizona State Sun Devils

Is this a trend?

NCAA Football: Washington at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

We didn’t see many adjustments on defense from the UCLA game, and ASU knew just how to attack the Huskies. Defensive execution seems to be inconsistent, and the defensive front isn’t playing as aggressively as they were earlier in the season. Tuli was limited in this game, and it showed.

Offense generally looked good, but again not as clean as in the early home games. The RBs and OL really showed out when given a chance, but when playing from behind it’s more difficult to lean on the run game as much as they might’ve liked to.

We’ll take a quick look at three plays, since that’s probably all the revisiting of this game that anyone wants.

To the Film:

1st & 10

Defense was the hot button topic of the week after a second straight game where we gave up 40 points. However, this week’s performance was infinitely more painful since we were facing an ASU program that’s in flux and primarily playing against a back up quarterback. While the pass defense was horrible (we’ll get to that in a second), it was our inability to stop the run in any meaningful way that was what is most concerning.

On this play from the middle of the 2nd quarter, our defense is on the field deep in our own red zone. Emory Jones had just left the game, so we haven’t seen what the backup can do just yet. Without knowing the severity of Jones’ injury, and given that it was 1st down, we should be expecting run all the way. If Jones wasn’t seriously hurt and might be able to get back on the field on this possession, you’d expect a very conservative play call just to bide time. Sure enough, this is exactly what ASU calls.

Lined up in a 2x2 11 personnel pistol set with an attached TE to the boundary, ASU calls a basic GT counter play (guard & tackle pull) to the strong side of the formation. We’re lined up in our base 4-2-5 personnel with an over front shade and a shallow 2-high quarters shell deep. All this is to say that pre-snap we look like we’re shading our DTs towards the TE and setting our safeties up to trigger downhill in run support. In theory, we are covered in both the run and pass by the quarters call since we have at least even numbers against the receivers and have “8” players in the box.

Now on a GT counter play towards the TE, the offense has 4 play side blockers (TE, LT, LG, C) to down block the 4 defenders in the middle of the box (2 DTs & 2 ILBs). The backside guard is pulling to kick out the play side EDGE, and if all goes well, the backside tackle is lead blocking through the lane up to the safety. There’s absolutely nothing special about this run concept, and its one that our own offense has in its playbook. However, we completely whiff on our defensive execution on this play.

As you can see on the replay angle, when the ball is snapped, our EDGEs come upfield way too hard to effectively play the run. For ZTF, he should know something is up after his first step upfield where he’s unblocked. He ends up recognizing this and course corrects by starting to squeeze the lane by coming down the LOS towards the ball carrier. However, he gets cute with his technique and tries to side step the oncoming RG to make the TFL, and he essentially takes himself out of the play without even disrupting the RBs timing. An unselfish player at least takes on the block squarely to support the rest of the defense.

Now looking to the other side, remember that the offense 6 blockers against 6 defenders in the box, but if the blocking scheme is using one to block the safety that’s not in the box, then someone in the box is unblocked. This is likely Sav’ell Smalls. For Smalls, one of two things should’ve happened. Either he is responsible for being the backside contain player and he stays back to let Tuputala flow to the point of attack, or he and Tuputala execute a scrape exchange where Tuputala stays back to play contain and Smalls attacks the ball carrier down the line of scrimmage. From what it looks like, this is a scrape exchange situation, but Smalls doesn’t flash his raw talent in this pure pursuit role. One would think that a former 5-star athlete could blow up the play as an unblocked player, but instead he lets himself get tangled up with the center and Valladay is off the races with no unblocked defenders left in front of him. In no situation should Smalls get blocked by a center who is already blocking Tuli. Either that center is a future first ballot hall of famer, or Small simply did not get the job done. Granted, he might’ve caught up with the RB if ZTF had done his own job in taking on the block and slowing him down...


2nd & 10

On a more positive note, this was a game where it finally felt like our run game was finding some traction. The box score might not illustrate a more efficient run game at first glance, but between our top 3 RBs (Wayne, Cam Davis, and Newton) we were averaging 6.8 yards per carry with a few explosive runs really making a difference. Explosive runs have been few and far between in the first half of the season, but it seems like Davis and Newton (when healthy) have forced the staff’s hand through their tough running and open field playmaking.

That sort of pure rushing ability, as well more cohesive blocking upfront with a reshuffled line up featuring Kirkland at LG, was on full display on this 2nd & 10 play. Lined up in an 11 personnel trips nub formation, Grubb uses a few creative tricks within his play design to help set up the OL and Davis. Nub formations are tricky for defenses to handle because they put the run strength and the passing strength on opposite sides of the formation and force defenses to either pick their poison or default to basic coverages and alignments. In this case, ASU decides to go with a 1-high shell, and based on their tendencies, its likely Cover 1. Grubb attacks this with a nifty RPO that he’s used a lot against opponents that like man coverage. This RPO is built around a weakside inside zone run concept and is tagged with a play side bubble screen and a backside TE arrow route. These two passing options are all about manipulating the defense. While playing man coverage, the DBs need to break hard on these quick developing pass concepts which clears them out quickly. That leaves 6 box defenders against our 5 blockers. By aligning Davis to the TE, the QB/RB mesh action is facing the backside DE, and because Culp’s route is clearing out the overhang CB, the backside DE needs to stay back to play contain. This then frees up Fautanu to execute a double team to the backside ILB and create a wide open lane for Davis into the secondary. This play would be a little more dangerous for the offense if ASU used more scrape exchanges, but Grubb must’ve felt confident in his game preparation that they wouldn’t scrape exchange against a pocket passer like Penix.

We haven’t given too much praise to the OL this season on Film Study, but this is a good chance to. After last year’s complete offensive debacle where the OL struggled mightily, and after some early season shuffling to find Kirkland’s best position in a new OL that has better OT talent than in the past, this seems to be the best overall lineup. Fautanu showed that he’s a very capable pass protector at LT, and his athleticism gives us a lot of flexibility in how we attack both inside and outside runs with him at the point of attack. Kirkland is decent at OT, but his strengths are best used in situations like this where he doesn’t need to reach block or seal off defenders and he can block downhill on linear combo blocks. The combination of Fautanu and Kirkland on this play is what set up Davis for his big run.


3rd & 15

Don’t think we weren’t going to cover the pass defense this week. We’re actually going with a positive play and use it to explain what’s going on, and how to move forward with this defense.

Here in a 3rd & 15 passing situation, the ASU offense comes out in a 3x2 empty set that we match with our shallow 2-high quarters shell over the top. After getting burned repeatedly all game by their quick passing game, we shift strategies on this play and go with a more conservative drop 7 coverage look. To the boundary we have Banks and Cook playing quarters over the top with Bright being responsible for the flat and hook curl zones underneath. To the field we have Esteen and Perryman over the top in quarters and Dom and Tuputala playing the underneath match zones.

ASU is going to the boundary side all the way and calls an out/corner smash concept to their 2-receiver side. Their corner/deep out route is being run by their #1 WR to the boundary, so Banks is reading his man all the way through the play, and once he reads the WR’s vertical stem, its essentially man coverage. The WR alignment and route spacing is a little weird, and the pass was off target, but Banks was in a perfect position to read and make a play on the ball and ended up with the interception.

The replay angle is where we really see Banks’ talent show through. Knowing that he has inside coverage help from Cook, Banks plays outside leverage to help eliminate outbreaking routes, and he opens his hips towards the field as he transitions into deep coverage so that he can keep his eyes on both the WR and the QB. As soon as he sees the QB wind up and the WR plant to break outside, Banks is able to flip his hips and drive on the route and the ball. His hip fluidity and short area burst set him up to be in position to make the play.

If you want to step back and pinpoint why our defense has been struggling, this play is a good place to start. In quarters coverage, both outside corners and the two safeties can all find themselves in coverage situations that look like this where its essentially man coverage. It could actually be argued that safeties have even harder worst case coverage situations because they could be matched up on slot receivers that have space to run routes with 2-way goes (inside and outside breaking routes). Those were the exact situations that Cook, Irvin, and Fabiculanan have been finding themselves in over the last two weeks when trying to cover the stacked WR looks. One could argue that the thin depth at DB has impacted the overall performance of the DBs, but if a young but talented CB like Banks can make coverage plays like this, then it might have more to do with talent and the specific traits of the safeties than just depth or experience.

This week it’s an Arizona offense that can move the ball. Let’s see if the Dawgs can make some stops in their home stadium, and let Grubb, DeBoer and Penix get the offense rolling to an early lead.