This week, the Arizona State Sun Devils take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders at home in Sun Devil Stadium. Bill Connelly’s advanced stats over at footballstudyhall.com project a close game, giving ASU a 53% chance to win, and a projected margin of victory of 1.2 points. Texas Tech brings a potent Air Raid passing attack, and QB Patrick Mahomes threw for over 4,600 yards last season, averaging over 8 yards per attempt. He also had a good start to this season, throwing for 483 yards and 4 touchdowns against Stephen F Austin last week. How ASU handles the Texas Tech passing game is a big part of this week’s Three Tines To Victory.
First Tine to Victory: Havoc
Recently, I’ve seen the sentiment expressed on social media and message boards that ASU should tone down the pressure against Texas Tech, since Air Raid teams have had a lot of success against the Sun Devil’s blitz-heavy defensive scheme in recent years. While it certainly is true that Air Raid offenses have torched the ASU defense, I don’t agree that ASU would be more successful if they blitzed less.
When ASU has had success against the Air Raid, it has been because it has been successful in pressuring the opposing quarterback. In the 2013 win over Washington State, and in the first halves of the 2015 contests against Washington State and Cal, ASU was able to build leads by using blitzes to pressure and confuse the opponent’s quarterback, resulting in three-and-outs and turnovers, of which the offense then took advantage. The problem in 2015 was that once the quarterbacks were able to settle down and opposing coaches were able adjust to the blitzes, catastrophic breakdowns in ASU’s secondary allowed Washington State and Cal to get back into the games and eventually win.
This past offseason, both Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have talked about the need to better disguise their blitz packages and be less predictable with their coverage schemes. Against NAU last week, ASU probably blitzed less than they ever have in the Graham era, and kept it pretty simple in the secondary, as well. This leads me to believe that Graham and Patterson are planning on using the element of surprise to their advantage against Texas Tech, and that the conservative defense we saw against the Lumberjacks was not a sign that they had changed their philosophy. If they’ve truly figured out how to be more unpredictable, they should be able to at least keep Patrick Mahomes off balance, even after he adjusts to the initial onslaught of pressure.
The Sun Devil’s best chance in this game is to bring some heat early, create some negative plays, get some stops, and maybe even some turnovers, and build a lead, which has always been Graham’s preferred strategy. The secondary does not yet look good enough to be able to stop the Texas Tech offense if Mahomes has time to sit in the pocket and find open receivers – which leads us to Tine Number 2.
Second Tine to Victory: Limit the catastrophic breakdowns in the secondary
As already mentioned, ASU has blown leads against Air Raid teams, mostly due to extremely poor play in the secondary. In last season’s losses to Washington State and Cal, ASU gave up 349 and 340 passing yards in the second halves, respectively, and 532 total passing yards in the bowl game against West Virginia. Even if ASU is successful with tine one, a second half performance like these would waste that effort. The Sun Devils need to combine their havoc-creating aggression with solid secondary play.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think ASU is able to stifle Texas Tech’s passing game completely. Mahomes will likely rack up a fair amount of yards, even in an ASU victory. But in order to have a chance, ASU needs to make him work for his yards – make him remain patient, and not repeatedly give up huge plays like they did in several games last year. Giving up 350 passing yards wouldn’t be a disaster, if it took over 50 attempts to get there. Giving up something like seven or eight yards per passing attempt, rather than over ten, will need to be enough to give the Sun Devils a shot to win.
Third Tine to Victory: Ball control
ASU is going to need to score to win this game. As pointed out already, I don’t think the Texas Tech offense will be completely shut down. However, the need to put up points can’t let the Sun Devils get impatient on offense. They’re going to need to run the ball successfully in order to win this game, as nothing has indicated to this point that Manny Wilkins and the ASU offense are capable of torching anybody solely through the air.
If Texas Tech is able to limit ASU’s running game, or if they get a lead and ASU feels like they need to abandon the run, it’s over. This doesn’t mean that ASU has to run the ball at least X% of the time – it just means that they have to be successful when they do run the ball. The threat of the run will be what allows Manny to create some big plays in the passing game. Fortunately, Chip Lindsey showed an ability to remain patient and stick to a game plan last week. He’ll need to do the same this week.
In addition to running the ball with success, ASU needs to avoid turnovers. It would be a shame if the Sun Devil defense achieved tines one and two, and then the offense wasted it by turning the ball over. If the game turns into some sort of shootout, which is likely, they will need to take advantage of every possession. Being able to run the ball will help in this regard, as it will take pressure off of Wilkins to force passes down the field.
I don’t see a scenario where ASU dominates Texas Tech – the NAU game indicated that ASU still has some kinks to work out before being able to put together a complete performance. However, the Red Raiders are not a complete team, either, and if ASU is able to create havoc on defense, not give up big plays in the passing game, and have an efficient, if not spectacular, offensive performance, they should be able to plant the pitchfork in the turf in victory on Saturday night.
For a detailed statistical preview of Saturday’s game, check out our Advanced Stats 12-Pack.