ASU football lost to Cal on Saturday night on a last second field goal, final score 48-46. The ASU Devils Den offers a recap and analysis.
Where do we start? Let’s begin with defense and head coach Todd Graham’s post-game comments and then work backwards from there.
Post-game comment #1: “We got some new guys back there at Bandit Safety and Free Safety, we would have gotten beat 100-0 if we didn’t pressure.”
Wow, that’s a statement. So, are we fans and observers supposed to believe that reserve safeties James Johnson and Solomon Means are incapable of knowing/executing the system? Means is a senior for crying out loud. Johnson is in his third year of the program. They don’t know the system by now? Are they unskilled? We’re supposed to believe that Johnson and Means aren’t athletic enough to keep up with the receivers of a 6-6 Cal team?
Post-game comment #2: “Pressuring the quarterback is what we do, if they want to not blitz, they can bring somebody else in here.”
This comment speaks to Graham’s system and his philosophy. Recall that after the Washington State loss we characterized the ASU defensive issues as being systemic, meaning that the system is flawed or the system isn’t being taught correctly. Either way, it falls on the director of the defense, which is Graham himself.
Let’s look at what happened Saturday night. First, there were about six plays where ASU defensive players were caught blitzing/controlling the same gap. They actually bumped into each other, essentially blocking themselves. Six times. And every one of those plays resulted in big gains for Cal. That’s some serious miscommunication.
And here’s an idea, how about having the perimeter defenders take away inside leverage? How about forcing receivers outside and thereby forcing Cal quarterback Jared Goff to make perfect throws towards the sideline, instead of easy slant and post routes? Anybody who knows football knows that it’s easier to complete passes in between the hash marks than it is to complete passes outside the numbers. The percentages prove that. And the one time Goff threw a fade route to the corner of the endzone, ASU defensive back Kweishi Brown committed the ultimate sin when playing man to man; he peeked back at the quarterback. That peek allowed the Cal receiver to get separation and make the TD catch. Terrible technique.
In fact, how about covering people in general? Casual fans may have watched that game and surmised that Goff simply used his superior skills to carve up the ASU secondary; not the case. When ASU blitzed, which was almost every down, Cal receivers were wide open and unaccounted for. This happened repeatedly. A wheel route from the running back out of the backfield that goes untouched for 50 yards? How is that possible? That play has burned ASU three times for touchdowns this year, including just a week earlier by Arizona in the Territorial Cup.
It’s not difficult for a quarterback like Goff to complete passes to guys that are wide open. That’s all he really did. It’s not like Goff stitched the Sun Devils by threading the needle in tight coverage or hitting receivers perfectly in stride over the outside shoulder, etc. He just flipped the ball out to ridiculously open receivers. Unexplainable.
And how about tackling? How many extra yards and/or touchdowns did Cal get because ASU defenders couldn’t get Cal ball carriers to the ground? We counted five. Five times where ASU defenders left their feet, put their head down and whiffed on the tackle, or took a bad/out-of control pursuit angle and overran the play. On a key third and long in the fourth quarter, how is that junior linebacker Salamo Fiso and sophomore defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood both had their hands on Goff for huge sack but couldn’t get him down? Fiso one of the surest tacklers on the team (finishing third in the conference with 68 solo tackles) and Smallwood outweighs the Bears junior quarterback by at least 80 pounds on the scale. Regardless, the play resulted in a critical first down for Cal. It just doesn’t make sense.
These are all simple, fundamental mistakes.
Back to the philosophy of pressuring the quarterback; what exactly was the payoff for bringing all those exotic blitzes? Zero sacks. That’s right, zero. Zero interceptions. Again, that’s right, zero. The result: 38 points allowed in the second half. Thirty eight.
On a personal note note: several years ago, I knew a baseball coach that believed in stressing the defense by aggressive base running. He believed in lots of stealing, hit and run, double steals, etc. So in the state playoffs, when they were facing a team with a pro-prospect catcher that had an absolute cannon for an arm, his assistant coaches suggested that maybe they should back off the idea of trying to steal bases all the time. His response: “Nope, that’s what we do, it’s what got us here. We’re not going to change a thing”. The result: That catcher threw out nine base runners. Nine. In high school baseball, they only play seven innings. That’s 21 total outs. This coach gave away 43% of his outs without even swinging the bat and they lost 2-1, eliminating them from the state tournament.
The implication and comparison from the above story is obvious. If something isn’t working, you stop doing it. As much as some genius coaches don’t want to admit it, coaching football at this level is not about schemes. The idea of sitting in a dark room, twisting your moustache and coming up with cool, new plays and blitzes that have never been seen before is absurd. That’s what Pop Warner coaches do.
Being the head football coach at this level is about process, culture and recruiting. On the field, scheme-wise, it’s about putting your current players in the best position to be successful. It means adjusting and tweaking the game plan to fit your personnel and fit the strengths/weaknesses of your opponent. What worked at Allen High School or the University of Tulsa may not work at ASU. What worked with Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Taylor Kelly may not work with the players you have now. What worked against a freshman quarterback may not work against a veteran. In fact, it hasn’t (editors note: Gary Doran will have more on this point later next month).
Graham has been quoted several times saying “we’re about winning championships.” And that’s fine, but does anyone doubt that Nick Saban or Urban Meyer make adjustments to their personnel? To their game plan? Of course they do. They know that every team is different and every weekly game is different.
Graham and his supporters point to the 2013 and 2014 campaigns as proof that the system works. Okay. Let’s take a look at those 10-win seasons. Does anyone remember how 2013 ended? The aggressive blitzing ASU defense got thumped by Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game on Dec. 7th, 2013. Three weeks later, the aggressive blitzing ASU defense got embarrassed by a 6-6 Texas Tech team. In similar fashion, the Red Raiders recognized the blitzes, picked them up and ran roughshod over the ASU secondary with crossing routes and slants. In that game, the Sutton/Bradford wrecking machine produced one sack. Sound familiar?
How about 2014? Does anyone remember veteran UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley dropping 60 points on the ASU defense? How about when the Sun Devils went to Corvalis on Nov. 8th with a #6 national ranking and got torched by veteran quarterback Sean Mannion for four long touchdowns in the second half. The ASU pressure package allowed for big play after big play from the lowly Beavers of Oregon State. Sound familiar?
This conference (as well as Texas A&M) has got the book on coach Todd Graham and his aggressive blitzing style of defense. The only opposing quarterbacks that couldn’t properly execute the plan against the Sun Devils were for the most part either freshmen or backups (Washington, Arizona, and UCLA).
Graham supporters also point to defensive statistics, even this site has been guilty of it at times. True, ASU is one of the national leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. The flip side of that coin is that the ASU defense is also among the worst teams in the country when it comes to yards allowed per play, explosive pass plays allowed, yards allowed per game and points allowed per game.
Something has to change. Now we’re not suggesting that coach Todd Graham be fired, not even close. Coach Graham is excellent in almost every other aspect of being a head coach; he’s a tireless teacher, he’s an excellent recruiter, he has brought discipline, accountability, character and academic success to this ASU football program. But this madness on defense has to stop. It’s becoming a joke and it’s funny to everybody except ASU. The defense is in disarray.
It’s probably too much to ask Graham to retool his defense in the three weeks before the bowl game. Although, he could dial it back a little bit. However, in the off-season, he must do some legitimate, honest reflection on how ineffective this style of play has become. There’s nothing wrong with having an aggressive philosophy. But it has to be done responsibly. Coach Graham has to recognize this and adjust his schemes or else ASU will suffer more of the same frustration.