Todd Graham confirmed in his weekly press conference that his team wasn’t playing their best football. That much was obvious as his team allowed 284 rushing yards to an FCS school last Saturday during the ASU home opener at the newly “reinvented” Sun Devil Stadium.
The Sun Devils learned that the triple option is called “the great equalizer” for a reason. Regardless if the opposing defense has bigger and faster defenders, this offensive scheme wears away at all eleven players on the other side of the football, both mentally and physically. And now this beat up Devils defense has to stop it for a second straight week. Albeit, a different flavor of triple option, but still the lovable cut block friendly attack the Devils would have preferred to miss out on with Pac-12 play opening in eight days.
Now before you join the crazies, put on your foil helmet, and assume all is lost in 2015 before Pac-12 even begins, please remember Arizona State has won its last 18 games against New Mexico, including the last nine in Tempe. And if the numbers tell us anything, Graham and his staff know New Mexico head coach Bob Davie (12-27 in his fifth season) very well. In fact, of the three triple option teams Graham has played during his tenure with the Devils, his defense performed at its best against the Lobos in Albuquerque last September in the 35-point victory.
Comparing yards per carry in the victories against each of those teams really doesn’t tell the story (Cal Poly gained less than half a yard more per carry than the Lobos did against the Devils last season). It was the Devils ability to stop the Lobos offense on third down, nearly 64-percent of the time, while forcing three turnovers that helped tell the story of that game.
Offensively, you can bet deputy head coach Mike Norvell was paying attention to how the Lobos struggled last week against Tulsa’s offensive tempo, falling 40-21 in Albuquerque. The Golden Hurricane snapped the ball 89 times on offense and finished 11th in total offensive snaps among FBS schools in 2014. It also doesn’t hurt to remember Norvell’s offense totaled 621 yards on the Lobos last year.
With that in mind, there are three key points to the game tonight that we will be following.
ASU (-27) vs New Mexico
First Tine of the Game: Shoring up the middle of the run defense
After giving up 284 rushing yards to the Mustangs, it was obvious, even to the average observer, that ASU needed to do a better job of suring up its interior run defense. The Cal Poly offense was quick to adjust to the Sun Devil
defense early in the game. Enter the death by a thousand paper cuts as the Mustangs slowly moved the chains up and down the field against the Devils defense.
Then, when ASU started to crash the outside run, quarterback Chris Brown began handing the ball off to Joe Protheroe on the dive play for the remainder of the evening. The problem schematically was that once the Devils changed their emphasis in defending from the inside out, it played right into the hands of Mustangs offensive coordinator Saga Tuitele.
But the Devils coaching defensive coaching staff will sleep a bit better this week knowing that the Lobos flavor of triple option is much different from a blocking standpoint than what Cal Poly ran a week ago. While successfully running one of the best college rushing attacks over the past few seasons, offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse is known for using 21-personnel in the pistol formations to outflank defenses and provide what he likes to refer to as instant misdirection by way of its zone blocking scheme. While this type of offense tries to lure aggressive defenders, it was something defensive coordinator Keith Patterson and company were able to keep under wraps during last years contest.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Lamar Jordan runs the Lobos triple option exclusively from either the pistol or your standard spread sets, looking to hit the defense on big run plays on the outside in order to establish the play action. While the triple option is a different wrinkle than the standard read option scheme run by the majority of the teams ASU will see in conference, the emphasis on the outside run plays into the hands of the Sun Devils aggressive defense. While the threat of the misdirection is there, this simply comes down to the Devils playing assignment sound defense and relying on the tendencies they watched on film earlier in the week.
Second Tine of the Game: Get up quickly and get the starters out
Although it’s obvious, we must point out that the Devils are beat up, and are playing on a short week with the Friday game. The backups need experience and the starters (what’s left of them at this point), will be looking for some rest come the fourth quarter. As stated earlier, the ability for Norvell’s offense to perform better at tempo would be a breath of fresh air for this defense.
Getting an early lead on quick scores will help make the Devils defense perform that much better as the Lobos offense does not want to throw the ball down by multiple scores, it’s just not what the scheme is designed for.
Key injuries to safety Armand Perry, defensive tackle Viliami Latu, running backs Kalen Ballage and De’Chavon Hayes, all necessitate replacements which tends to eat away at depth and redshirting options. But Todd Graham has shown to be resourceful and adjust on the fly as was the case last week with senior D.J. Foster handling the back-up duties at running back behind Demario Richard.
Whether or not we see the likes of Renell Wren at defensive tackle would do a lot long term in seeing whether or not Graham truly believes in his depth players along the defensive line. If the redshirt freshman isn’t utilized, it will continue to mean freshman Jo Jo Wicker and sophomore Tashan Smallwood will continue to play the majority of the snaps without coming off the field for breathers.
Third Tine of the Game: Wiggings helps prepare for Jackson
We’ll learn this week if the Devils kickoff and punt return units are up to par after a rough first week as they’ll see one of the better returners in the nation, senior wide receiver Carlos Wiggins. The former Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year has four career touchdown returns and is the most explosive player on the Lobos roster.
Preventing Wiggins from making an impact on special teams will help special teams coach Shawn Slocum build confidence in his players helping prepare for the future. A future that arrives eight days later when the Devils welcome one of the most dynamic returners in the nation, USC Trojans jack of all trades sophomore Adoree’ Jackson.
Check out Gary Doran’s statistical preview of New Mexico written earlier this week.