Roll On: Previewing The Arizona State Defense

Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Sun Devils bring a deceptively dominating defense into Saturday's game at Memorial Stadium, but have they faced a legitimate challenge yet this season? How much do we really know about this unit? CGB explores at we begin to preview Cal's pivotal 5th game of the season.

Statistically, Arizona St. has the most scary defense Cal has faced this year. But it's a bit deceptive, and as a result I don't know what to tell you about the Sun Devil defense. Here are three names:

Nathan Scheelhaase
James Franklin
Jordan Wynn

These three gentlemen were the starting quarterbacks for Illinois, Missouri and Utah. None of the three played against Arizona State. In the case of Franklin and Scheelhaase, they both played the previous week, meaning that both Missouri and Illinois faced ASU with QBs making their first ever start, with offenses that had worked with the presumed starter all fall.

I don't need to tell you all that an offense can look ugly when the 2nd string QB is suddenly thrust into the starting role.

So yeah, I don't know what to make of Arizona State's defense. By this point in the year I like to only go with stats accumulated this season. But Arizona State has played an FCS team and three teams missing their starter. There isn't a ton of meaningful data to analyze. Throughout this entire preview I'll be saying things like "Well, that's the kind of stats you accumulate when you play bad teams playing their backup quarterback." It will be repetitive, and by the end you'll be annoyed.

Also, we can't make lazy Vontaze Burfict jokes any more. This truly is a new Arizona State.

Personnel

Defensive Line: So. DE Carl Bradford ; Jr. DT Will Sutton ; Fr. DT Jaxon Hood ; Jr. DE Junior Onyeali

Sutton and Onyeali are the veterans - both started every game last year when healthy. They have both been productive so far, combining for 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. But perhaps more surprisingly, Bradford and Hood have been almost as productive as the vets. In total the defensive line has recorded 10 sacks and the Sun Devils lead the nation in tackles for loss. It may or may not be worth noting that six of those sacks came against Illinois.

Hopefully those stats are a reflection of ASU's opponents and not their true talent. Because if it is their true talent level it's going to be a long, awful game.

Linebackers: Jr. OLB Chris Young ; Jr. ILB Steffon Martin ; Sr. OLB Brandon Magee

All three starters graduated from last year's team, although it might be argued that the way Burfict was playing that it's addition by subtraction. And the three new guys combined for . . . zero games played last year.

OK, that's deceptive. Magee was out injured and Martin and Young are both 3 star JC transfers in their first year at Tempe. So there's lots of unknowns although Magee was a very productive player prior to his injury in 2011. He seems to have picked up right where he left off with two interceptions and 24 tackles in just 3 games.

Amongst the new guys, Young has been all over the field and is currently leading the team in total tackles, individual tackles and tackles for loss. He'll likely come on blitzes in ASU's aggressive scheme and it will be up to the line to pick him up.

Secondary: Jr. Boundary Corner Osahon Irabor ; Jr. Boundary Safety Alden Darby ; Sr. Field Safety Keelan Johnson ; Sr. Field Corner Deveron Carr

A note on terminology: I've never seen the terms 'field' and 'boundary' applied to players in the secondary on a depth chart, but it's pretty simple. When an offense is lined up along a hashmark, the 'boundary' players line up on the short side of the field and the 'field' players cover the wider, open side of the field. By that definition, it makes sense that the veteran seniors Johnson and Carr both cover the more difficult, open side of the field.

Darby has a couple of interceptions already and Johnson is the leading tackler amongst the secondary. It's worth noting that all four of these players saw significant playing time last year when ASU's pass defense was a mess. It will be interesting to see if their tremendous play so far holds up against a legitimate passing attack.

I'm pretty pretty sure Cal can be considered a legit passing attack. Right? You don't have a surefire first round receiver if you're not, right?

2012 performances

237 total yards allowed (3.89 yards/play) in a 63-6 win over Northern Arizona
332 total yards allowed (4.49 yards/play) in a 45-14 win over Illinois
318 total yards allowed (3.61 yards/play) in a 24-20 loss to Missouri
209 total yards allowed (3.87 yards/play) in a 37-7 win over Utah

Yikes. When Illinois has had the most success against your defense that means that you've probably faced some really, really dysfunctional offenses. On a side note, I'm thinking that Missouri might be in for a really miserable first year in the SEC.

Against the Run

2011: 4.28 yards allowed/attempt, 68th in the nation
2012: 3.18 yards allowed/attempt, 27th in the nation

Arizona State has had to defend a whole mess of runs so far this year - 169 in four games, or about 42/game. That's a ton, especially since ASU blew out three of their opponents. Cal will be the first team ASU has played that won't be explicitly trying to run the ball on all standard downs and that will maintain some sort of normal run/pass balance.

Against the Pass

2011: 7.9 yards allowed/attempt, 98th in the nation
2012: 5.2 yards allowed/attempt, 11th in the nation

11th in the nation, but against an FCS school and three backup QBs on teams that prefer to run the ball anyway. Essentially, we have zero clue about what the ASU pass defense is capable of. We can confirm that they weren't good last year (Zach Maynard had one of the top two or three performances of his career against ASU last year) but how much does that mean now that they're under an entirely new coaching staff?

Stats of Dubious Value

Turnovers

2011: 17 turnovers forced (9 interceptions, 8 fumbles), 95th in the nation
2012: 10 turnovers forced (8 interceptions, 2 fumbles), 9th in the nation.

And now you see why ASU's opponents didn't want to pass the ball. 8 interceptions from backup QBs.

As always, your permanent key to the game for the 2012 season: ZACH YOU THROW BALLS TO OUR GUYS NOT THEIRS!

3rd Down

2011: opponent conversion percentage of 34.88%. 24th in the nation
2012: opponent conversion percentage of 37.31%, 60th in the nation

Red Zone

2011: Opponents scored in 82.69% of red zone possessions (73rd in the nation), scored touchdowns in 57.69% (41st)
2012: Opponents scored in 63.64% of red zone possessions (12th in the nation), scored touchdowns in 63.64% (78th)

Almost every single red zone possession against ASU has ended in a touchdown or a turnover. Will that trend continue against Cal's field goal happy attack?!?

Conclusions

I'm prepared for anything. I'll be ready if Arizona State's front seven continues to rack up sacks and tackles for loss against Cal's offensive line. I won't be shocked if Keenan Allen and his merry band of freshmen run rampant against a completely untested ASU secondary. I'm expecting 12 Brendan Bigelow carries, or maybe 2. I'll expect 250 yards or 500. Either way.

Is this my way of avoiding making any kind of courageous prediction? Yes, yes it is. Hell, last week I wrote this:

There are zero excuses for not scoring points. If Robert Woods goes nuts and Cal loses a shoot-out, fine. But if this team gets held to 17 points or lessagain . . . I don't know what I'll do.

It turns out that what I'll do is curse myself for believing that anything good could ever happen against USC, admit that I don't know what I'm talking about and resolve to never make ultimatums again.

The bottom line is that there's not much evidence from the recent past or defensive coordinator Paul Randolph's resume to suggest that Arizona State should have an above-average defense. On the other hand, I'm not going to dismiss a coach because he failed to build a dominant defense at Tulsa, and there's no evidence yet that the 2012 Sun Devils can't have an above-average defense.

I guess we'll all find out on Saturday.

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