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Defensive consistency key to ASU's rosy outlook

Shane Dieffenbach Avatar
October 9, 2021

Arizona State’s 28-10 win against Stanford on Friday gave the Sun Devils a second consecutive convincing argument for Pac-12 supremacy. Arizona State is 5-1 overall at the midpoint of the season, and 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 2012.

Putting that in perspective, the Sun Devils didn’t start the 2013 season at 3-0 in conference, and that was the year that they hosted Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game in Tempe. They were 4-2 overall at the midpoint that year, with losses to the Cardinal and Notre Dame at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. 

The Sun Devils control their own destiny when it comes to winning the Pac-12 South and earning a second title- game appearance. While early-season questions focused on the team’s offensive capability, it’s looking more like the Devils’ fate will rest upon the strength of the defense and the overall depth. 

Given time, the offensive line has improved its communication, allowing the offense to kick things up a notch. Quarterback Jayden Daniels has looked comfortable in the pocket and has had more time to get the ball out, spreading his passes to a diverse group of receivers. 

“He’s starting to get comfortable with the receivers, and you’ve got to give the receivers a lot of credit for starting to find their way,” coach Herm Edwards said.  “And this is still with Johnny (Wilson) out still.”

The running backs have also enjoyed success this year thanks to the big gaps opened by the line, allowing Arizona State to become a dual passing-running threat, and therefore harder to defend. 

While the Sun Devils may not have capitalized on all of the opportunities to score in the second half, they are tied for 35th in the nation in scoring at 34.4 points per game. Ultimately, the defense will pave the road to the Rose Bowl.

In the previous two games, Arizona State allowed only three second-half points combined. In a win at UCLA, the Sun Devils had a more dominating performance, keeping the Bruins scoreless in the second half. It was the best, most complete performance from the team so far this year. 

In Friday’s game against Stanford the defense allowed three second-half points and one touchdown in the game, despite allowing Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee to pass for 356 yards. The Sun Devils did a great job of forcing Stanford to adapt on the field, shutting down the Cardinal ground game and making McKee use his arm.

“They didn’t try to rush a lot” Edwards said. “They were going to throw it, but that’s a good sign, and we got to the quarterback. We hit him and we harassed him, and we took the ball away.”

The Sun Devil defense held Stanford to 13 rushing yards. Under coach David Shaw, that’s the second-lowest total in his tenure, and the Cardinal averages more than 200 rushing yards per game. Arizona State played the textbook definition of “bend don’t break” defense on Friday, coming in clutch to make critical stops when they were needed most. 

“Our guys did a great job. They made some plays but when they got close to the red zone, our guys really tightened it up,” defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce said. 

Slowly but surely, the defense is morphing into the unit that everyone anticipated before the season. With the amount of experience on the roster, expectations were lofty for this team. It’s becoming apparent why, as Arizona State gains confidence from week to week. 

The Sun Devils are the lone remaining FBS program not to have allowed any plays of 40 or more yards. The overall football IQ and skill level was most apparent on an interception by Jack Jones. After Jones came down with the ball, he tossed a quick lateral pass to DeAndre Pierce, who was able to take it in for six. It was an insane play to watch, and it showed off the Sun Devils confidence, skill and experience. 

“At the end of the day, it was a hell of a play first of all by Jack,” Pierce said. “They ran that route earlier in the game and he caught it. This time Jack read it, same formation, Jack jumped it and DeAndre finally got in the end zone. It was good to see.”

A defensive back during his playing career, Edwards had a unique appreciation for the play.

“That’s just instinctive,” he said. “First of all, he had to intercept the ball the way he did before he goes down. And Pierce runs by and he sees Jack, and that’s just kind of the stuff you do on instinct. I’m glad it worked because if he would have fumbled it, he would have seen a mad head coach. It’s all pretty when it happens and it works.

Jones and the other corners all worked with Edwards this week to fully understand how to cover taller receivers, such as those on the Stanford roster. 

“You’ve got to put face mask to face mask because in the era of today’s football, the back shoulder fade comes into play, and if you turn in the opposite way of the receiver, you can’t get back to the ball,” Edwards said. “You have to have the mobility to turn your head to the receiver and also play the ball.”

In one of the more standout performances from the defensive side, Tyler Johnson had an explosive night, recording five tackles, 3.5 tackles for losses, and two sacks off the line. While the veterans put on a performance, a notable number of younger players have also produced big plays. 

One of those was an interception from redshirt sophomore Jordan Clark in the fourth quarter to help Arizona State seal the game. Clark’s pick served as a reminder for the second time in less than a week of the Sun Devils depth. 

“We turned the ball over, but we took it away three times and that’s the kind of football you want to play,” Edwards said. “You want to take it away and you don’t want to turn it over, and the defense went out there and stopped it. You got to give credit to the defense.” 

Edwards is preaching consistency and focus as the Sun Devils look to keep their momentum flowing in preparation for a big game at Utah on Oct. 16. The Utes are the only other team in the Pac-12 South without a conference loss.

“We’re just trying to win another game,” Edwards said. “You get yourself in a bad way when you start saying that, ‘my program this.’ It’s about winning games. If you win, everybody’s happy. If you don’t win, then you’ve got other things coming.”

In a conference that regularly cannibalizes itself, consistency will be the key for the Devils, and it will start with their ability to make the stops on defense.

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