Mike Slifer

Sun Devil Defense Falters Against Cougars


Yesterday, in Pullman, WA, the ASU football team dropped their third game in a row by a score of 38-24 to the Washington State Cougars.  After a solid, dominating start, the Sun Devils fell apart defensively in the second half to continue their slide.  ASU is now 4-5 overall, 2-4 in the Pac-12.

The ASU Devils Den offers an analytical recap of the ASU effort on defense.

ASU Defense

One word; incompetence.  It may be a scathing description, but it is accurate.  There are plenty of things about this ASU defense to point fingers at, but in the end, it comes down to lack of preparation and an inability to adjust.  The problem is systemic and it starts with ASU head coach Todd Graham.

Inexplicably, the ASU defensive unit could not stop the slant route.  Time after time, often on key third and fourth downs, Washington State threw a simple slant route for big gains.  It’s inexcusable.  One of the first things that defensive backs learn is to not give up inside leverage.  They learn it in high school, if not sooner.  Cornerbacks cannot allow an outside receiver to cross their face and get to the inside.  But it occurred repeatedly and contributed to three scoring drives of over 90 yards by Washington State.

Getting beat inside with a slant route occasionally by great receivers being defended by young cornerbacks is somewhat expected.  But veteran defensive backs getting juked and beat inside by average receivers up and down the field is flat-out unacceptable.  Even young coaches drill into their cornerbacks to take away the inside, force the receiver to fade outside and demand a perfect pass from the quarterback.  Washington State never had to worry about that.  They just kept running the simple slant route with impunity because ASU could never adjust.

Another systemic breakdown on defense was the inability to cover the running back coming out of the backfield.  Again, it’s unacceptable.  On every snap, a defensive player is assigned to peel off to cover the back leaking into the flats.  ASU blew that coverage several times leading to big plays for the Cougars.

This is why the issues on defense appear to be systemic.  The defensive schemes being taught by Graham and his staff are either not being taught correctly or the schemes don’t fit the skill set of the players.  Perhaps it’s a combination of both.  Either way, it should have been recognized and fixed long before November.  At the very least, the coaches and players should have been able to adjust during the game and force Washington State to do something different.

Devils Den doesn’t believe that coach Graham or his players are incapable of adjusting.  Nor are they lacking in talent to keep up with the Cougar skill players.  It appears that coach Graham refused to adjust, insisting that his players can execute his plan.  That’s just plain stubbornness.  Something will have to change or ASU won’t win another game.  They’ll finish 4-8 and miss a bowl game.

It has been uttered before that perhaps Graham’s defense may be too complicated.  It would be hard to argue that.  After every loss, Graham complains of “too many critical errors and blown assignments.”  That is understandable after one bad game (USC).  But at some point, after so many critical errors and blown assignments, the blame must shift from the players to the coaches.  That’s how it works.

Defensively, coach Graham must do some realistic soul-searching about his defense for the final three games.  It can be humbling and uncomfortable for a successful coach to come to the conclusion that his schemes that have worked brilliantly in the past don’t fit his current team.  Coaching football at this level is all about adjustments, whether it’s year-to-year, week-to-week, half-to-half or even series-to-series.  It’s not the players’ fault if they don’t fit perfectly into Graham’s role of Devil Backer or Spur Linebacker.  But if they don’t fit that role, then it’s the coaches job to change the role.  It’s that simple.

Devils Den commends coach Graham and his staff for inspiring a great effort from this team.  Clearly, the ASU players are giving everything they have, despite a disappointing season.  But it’s not enough.  This team is underachieving because of schemes and philosophy.  Analysts, media and fans will all be watching to see if coach Graham can shift the paradigm that the ASU defense is mired in right now.  It will be a huge testament to his skill as a head coach moving forward.

About Mike Slifer

Mike Slifer

Mike Slifer has been a teacher and football/basketball coach at the high school level for 17 years. He brings a unique perspective to the analysis of the game. Mike’s experience as a position coach, coordinator and head coach provides him with unique insights. He is interested in writing for an audience that wants more details, technical explanations and “coach think” as part of the discussion of the sport.

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