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Opponent Defensive Preview: Arizona State Sun Devils

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

Yes. A lot of Husky fans are still riding high after last week’s huge win over Oregon, but for the team, it is time to turn the page and look ahead to this week’s game against Arizona State. In a rematch of last season’s debacle in the desert, UW will look to avenge the heartbreaking loss against new head coach Kenny Dillingham’s revamped Sun Devil squad.

A lot has changed since last year’s game. Instead of reeling from a tough loss at UCLA, the Huskies are hosting this game with all the confidence and momentum in the world. That isn’t to say there aren’t intriguing match ups that could test our team if we don’t stay focused. The Sun Devils have a revamped and retooled defense that’ll look to slow down our explosive offense that won’t likely be at full strength.

The Scheme & Personnel

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

ASU’s defense got a major refresh this past offseason under new DC Brian Ward. Ward, the former Washington State DC under Jake Dickert, has helmed multiple outstanding defenses during his career, and he was a major contributor to WSU’s defensive renaissance over the last few years. Prior to his stint at WSU, Ward got his start coaching linebackers, and in 2017, he was a nominee for the Broyles Award, the award for the best assistant coach in college football, while a linebackers coach at Syracuse. That background as a LBs coach is much needed as ASU’s LBs have significant work to do.

Schematically, ASU runs a 4-2-5 like most teams in the Pac-12, but what differentiates their version is their use of a conventional 4-down front paired with a highly-multiple secondary that will regularly shift between 1, 2, and 3 deep looks from down to down. Unlike most base nickel defenses, ASU will deploy their 5th DB at safety depth to further disguise their back end coverages. Against balanced 2x2 looks, ASU’s 3 deep safety look can easily rotate post-snap into Cover 1, Cover 2, and Cover 3 looks with relative ease and with few indicators on which safety is dropping down into underneath coverage. The downside to this is that there is regularly huge voids in the underneath zones for shifty slot WRs to take advantage of. ASU tries to make up for this with regular 5+ man pressure designs that will get DBs involved as well as the LBs. This approach has worked reasonably well for them with 18 sacks on the season, of which 6 have come from DE Prince Dorbah and 4 from DE BJ Green II. However, most of these came against teams with bad pass protection, and it still hasn’t prevented stronger passing teams from carving up their secondary.

Keys to the Game

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

As with most games during the Penix-DeBoer era, our offense will go as far as Penix’s arm can take us, which is to say as long as our offensive line can hold up in pass protection. We have an elite pass protecting offensive line, but with a banged up receiving corps that may be down Jalen McMillan and Germie Bernard, we could also see a pivot towards a 12 personnel focus this week that leans on the RB room to generate consistent yardage. ASU’s preference to play it safe against high-flying passing attacks like USC and Colorado will mean that light boxes are likely. Dillon Johnson has proven to be a key difference maker in the backfield. A healthy dose of the run game could be enough of a down-to-down threat to force ASU out of their ultra conservative coverage looks.

Something else to look out for is our usage of our WRs out of the slot and in stacked alignments. ASU rarely plays Cover 3 out of their 3 safety look, and if we can attack the deep middle when they decide to drop their middle safety into underneath coverage, we could generate big plays downfield despite the 3 safety look. Additionally, ASU likes to have horizontal bracket coverage against stacked alignments (two DBs aligned at the same depth over the stack). One would get the in-breaking route and the other would take the out-breaking route. USC attacked this look by sending one of the WRs deep with a clean release off the line and a choice route to attack whatever leverage the DB gives them. This could be another look that is begging us to burn deep. Whichever the case may be, there should be offense to be had against this defense in transition.