Gary Doran

Fool Me Once: Todd Graham’s Defense at ASU


There are so many variables that contribute to the overall performance of a defense in college football today. To point to just one factor as the root cause of a poor trend in that performance is a bit simplistic, however, since the performance of the opposing team’s quarterback has a very strong impact on a team’s overall performance, that’s the focus of this article. The Devils Den conducted an analysis of the performance of the 24 quarterbacks that have faced Todd Graham’s defense at ASU over the past four seasons. The analysis is about the 37 conference games played since the start of Graham’s career in Tempe (36 regular season games and one conference championship game).

Conference games were selected, because it helps eliminate padding the stats against lesser non-conference competition. It’s comparing apples to apples, so to speak. The major focus of the analysis was the quarterback’s ratings in the games against ASU compared to the same quarterback’s ratings for the games against the other conference teams during same time period. As always, thanks to for their wonderful compilation of stats and to for the use of its quarterback-rating calculator.

Here’s how four seasons of his defense have ranked during Pac-12 play:


The biggest thing that jumps out at you is rush defense improving in one direction and the pass defense sliding in the opposite. Also notice the trend of the run to pass ratio. Each year, conference opponents are throwing the ball more and more against the Sun Devils. So much so, that this past season, conference opponents averaged passing the ball three out of every five plays. It appears that offensive coordinators within the conference see a greater advantage to passing the ball more often against a Graham coached defense than they did earlier in his Pac-12 tenure. It could have something to do with the quarterbacks.




There have been 24 different quarterbacks that faced a Graham coached defense for the very first time since the start of 2012.  These quarterbacks produced a collective quarterback rating that was roughly ten points lower against his defenses than their QBR ratings against the other conference defenses they faced in the same time period. To add some perspective, this would mean that their combined performances against the Devils’ defense would have earned them a quarterback rating that was 77th best in the college football rankings this year compared to a ranking that was 56th best against the other conference defenses they played during the same time period, in effect, a drop of over 20 spots.

As for the eight quarterbacks that faced Graham’s defense a second or third time in a total of 13 games, their overall quarterback rating in those games improved against the ASU defense. However, their quarterback rating against Graham’s defense was actually ten points higher than their overall rating against the other conference defenses during the same time. This means they improved more against Graham’s defenses than against any other defense in the conference.

For this seasoned group, they would have ranked as the 35th best quarterback in this year’s rankings against Graham’s defenses and 59th best against all the other conference defenses. Additionally, in a game-over-game comparison of the quarterbacks that faced the an ASU defense a second or third time, their quarterback rating improved from their previous game ten times, while it decreased only three times.

From the table above, it doesn’t appear that the sacks were a major influence on quarterback performance. However, the numbers may have been skewed a bit in that UCLA’s Brett Hundley was sacked a total of 14 times in facing the Devils during his second and third games combined, but still managed a combined quarterback rating of 214.02 for those games, which would have ranked as the top quarterback in 2015.


It appears that no matter what year the quarterback is in their program in terms of eligibility, when that quarterback faces a Graham-coached defense for the first time, he does worse against them than against the other conference defenses in the same time period. It’s surprising that the freshmen quarterbacks have done the best facing Graham’s defenses for the first time compared to their more mature counterparts. This could definitely be a quality issue, as the group also performed better against the rest of the conference than the sophomore or junior quarterbacks faced by ASU.

An interesting aspect to this is that as the maturity level of the quarterbacks increases by class year, the difference in how well they perform for the first time against ASU defenses and against the other conference defenses widens substantially. While it looks like the Graham’s defenses have more of a detrimental  impact on the more mature group seeing his defenses for the first time compared to what their performance capability was against the rest of the conference defenses, further research is needed to fully explain this trend.


The big thing that jumps out is that in each succeeding season, the performance of the quarterbacks facing Graham’s defenses increased based on the overall QBR ratings. Additionally, the difference between those quarterbacks’ performance against ASU defenses and the other conference defenses got smaller until this past year the combined quarterbacks performance was better against ASU than the rest of the conference teams they faced.

The other bit of information to take into consideration is that ASU faced a higher quality of quarterbacking in their opponents overall in 2015 than any of the other season since Todd Graham arrived, based on average QBR. Additionally, two of the quarterbacks ASU faced in 2015 were making their third start against the Devils.


A main factor of how the defense performs is affected by the combination of quality and maturity of the quarterbacks facing the defense. With that in mind, the above table analyzed the eleven upperclass quarterbacks that Todd Graham’s defenses have faced in his tenure. With the first six quarterbacks ASU faced in 2012 and 2013, their overall combined QBR rating against the other conference defenses would have placed them as a 56th rated quarterback this year out of 124 rated quarterbacks. The Devils were 5-1 against those six upperclass quarterbacks, and all six were facing the ASU defense for the first time.

The last five quarterbacks the ASU defense has faced that were upperclassmen had an overall combined QBR rating against the other conference defenses that would have placed them as the 33rd best rated quarterback in the 2015 season (ranked 23 spots better than the 2012 & 2013 group). The Devils were 0-5 against these five quarterbacks, allowing a QBR rating  that would have placed them as the fifth best quarterback rating in 2015. It’s also pertinent that three of these quarterbacks had already faced the Devils at least once.

What the Numbers Mean

When quarterbacks face Graham’s defenses for the first time, they usually fare worse than they do against the other conference defenses that they play in the same time period.  However, when the quarterbacks have faced his defenses at least once before, they usually play better than they do against the other conference defenses. Additionally, it doesn’t seem to matter the year of eligibility of the quarterback when he faces Todd Graham’s style of defense for the first time; he usually fares worse than against the other defenses in the Pac-12.

On a combined basis, the group of quarterback that the Devils defense faced each season appeared to be better based on their overall QBR ratings against the other conference defenses, with a little hiccup in 2013 (thanks in part to impact pass rushers Will Sutton and Carl Bradford). It also appears that these better quarterbacks improved more against Graham’s defenses than against the other conference defenses.

It would also seem that the Todd Graham coached defenses in the first two years of his tenure benefitted from having 16 out of 19 games played where the ASU defense was facing a quarterback that had not played against them before, and that their overall QBR rating as a group was lower than the quarterbacks the Devils faced in 2014 and 2015.

Graham’s defenses are built on a risk-reward type of approach using a very aggressive attacking style to get sacks and TFLs. Unfortunately for this analysis, the information on sacks and TFLs was limited, so there wasn’t the same degree of analysis with those categories. That may leave out an important piece in fully understanding the trend of the defenses.

As a side note, four of the five quarterbacks that have faced ASU three times are from Pac-12 South teams.  Also, the ASU defense under Todd Graham has faced a different quarterback in all four of their rivalry games against Arizona. Based on the analysis, that’s a big benefit for ASU.

About Gary Doran

Gary Doran

Gary graduated from ASU many years ago. After careers working in banking, finance and the financial administration of academic research funding, he is now interested in utilizing his passion for numbers towards two things he thoroughly loves; Arizona State University and college football. He is looking forward to finding the “stories” buried within the numbers on a football stat sheet. He has gone to ASU football games all the way back to the days of Frank Kush and the WAC. He has been married to an amazing ASU graduate for almost forty years, and they currently live in Ventura, CA. Although this may disqualify him from talking football, he and his wife enjoy the practice of yoga and dancing the Argentine Tango. Ole!

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  1. DevilsDenRob


    December 21, 2015 at 2:03 PM

    There was so much information packed into this one read, I had to go over it a few times to fully absorb all of the detail.

    That being said, one of the biggest points Gary makes here that left it's mark on me was in regards to the 8 QBs that had faced Graham's defense multiple times had higher QBRs against ASU than any other team they performed against multiple times during their Pac-12 careers. You can have an opinion on this defensive system one way or another after four seasons, but that statement is pretty telling!

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