After playing what could have been the toughest back to back away schedule... ever? Cal returns home to face Arizona State, but who are these Sun Devils? We have become accustomed to the pro-style Dennis Erickson squads with less than Burfict discipline. Todd Graham features the spread offense and dangerous defense (3 Forced Fumbles and an interception vs Utah) that plays with attitude but far fewer penalties.
I want to look at the defense to start off. Utah has the ball, 2nd and 5 on their first drive. The Utes have lined up in a run formation (continuing their trend of running out of power run formations and passing out of the spread), they had two receivers and a tight end bunched at the top (left side of their formation) and one receiver lined up on the right of their formation. ASU has three defensive linemen, a linebacker in a three point stance (one hand and two feet make 3 points) on on Utah's right end, two middle backers, two corners and three safeties (two deep and one as a nickel back in a two point stance on the left of Utah's formation).
I have indicated how Utah wants to block this play. I believe that the running back was supposed to run to his right just because the blocks by the receivers on the left are pathetic. It turns out that the pulling tight end's block on the outside backer isn't much better . The player to watch is #90, Will Sutton (circled). He is listed as a 6'1, 267 lb Defensive Tackle but all of that is misleading. He looks much bigger and the Sun Devils will line him up at DT or either DE position (he had the following TFL and a sack both on this Utah possession). Utah fails to adequately block either ASU's outside backer (#52 Carl Bradford) or the safety (#21 Chris Young) but it is Sutton who blows up this play by man-handling the right tackle and forcing his way into the backfield preventing any sort of cut by the running back. Lets take a look.
Arizona State's physical defensive play isn't what is making the headlines. This year it is that spread offense getting all the press. They scored three touchdowns in the first quarter against Utah to put the game away (helped by a defense that forced two punts and a fumble to set up the scoring drives).
ASU uses two quarterbacks, Taylor Kelly (#10) and Michael Eubank (#18). Taylor has emerged as the starter but Eubank will get significant playing time so here are a couple plays showing what each can do.
While Taylor Kelly is a very good runner, he is the primary passer in this offense. This is Arizona State's first offensive play of the game. They are going to run a zone read play action pass. Normally a team will run a few running plays to set up play action but ASU just relies on Utah's film study to get the defense to bite on the play action fake. Utah is in man-to-man defense with 4 down lineman, two middle backers and five defensive backs (there is a deep safety somewhere off the screen). ASU is in the spread shotgun with three receivers split wide, an H-back and a running back. I have drawn the routes that the receivers are going to run and the QB's roll out.
Here is what the play action looks like. The defensive backs are maintaining their man-to-man coverage and have not taken the play action bait. Furthermore. the defensive end is holding position and not going for the run fake either. The offensive linemen are doing a zone blocking scheme to the left, but they are faking run blocks and doing pass blocks instead.
The pass coverage stays pretty tight as Kelly rolls out and the defensive end is closing in. And what is that in red? The Center is two yards past the line of scrimmage, that makes him an ineligible receiver... The referee is looking right at him...
Kelly makes keeps the play alive long enough for his deep receiver to come back to the ball, then he throws a dart on the run to complete the pass. And no flag from the official... (Edit: thank you, the beer, for pointing out that this is a legal block - see comments section for more)
Ok, so that lineman down field wasn't so bad: he didn't go that far and that linebacker he blocked wasn't going to make the play anyway. But check out this next play.
ASU is in the spread again but this time with four receivers split wide, Utah looks to be in the same defense as the last play we looked at.
Once again we see the Zone Read play, but this time the offensive linemen are not pass blocking, they are run blocking.
Taylor Kelly keeps the ball on the read and the defensive end bites hard on the run fake. The cornerback recognizes that he is the only one who can stop the quarterback run and flies up in support releasing the man he was covering.
Taylor Kelly decides he doesn't want to run after all and throws a pass to his now wide open receiver. Touchdown!
7-0 ASU. Except that touchdown should get called back as ASU had their entire line down field. Having all those linemen down field not only blocks lots of players but it makes a great fake out because it is illegal so of course the defense is going to stop covering the receivers the QB cannot pass.
Now, you may say that there are plenty of linemen down field on a screen play or a shovel pass and that is true, but those passes are completed behind the line of scrimmage and therefore anyone can be down field by rule. I thought the NFL Refs were replacements not the Pac-12 Refs. If this happens during Saturday's game I want to see you throw all your dirty laundry on the field. The Boise State fans waive these annoying banners on the end of long poles, can we waive giant yellow flags every time the officials miss a call?
We are sure to see lots of Taylor Kelly, especially in any long yardage situation. In short yardage and goal line situations ASU likes to trot out their second quarterback Michael Eubank. Eubank is listed at 6'6 and 233 lbs and Todd Graham uses him as a power runner. Here is an example:
Arizona State is in the spread formation without a running back (on a designed run to the QB, is this a Wild Devil?) and four wide outs. ASU puts a man in motion and Utah shows zone coverage as no one follows the motion man across the field. This play is designed as a power run with the left guard pulling and the H-back coming across the formation to lead block. Eubank will follow his blockers on the quarterback run.
This play is sabotaged by the ASU H-back. Because the motion receiver crossed the formation the defender covering him was left free.
The H-back pulls around following the pulling guard, but he never looks outside, instead he plows ahead looking for someone inside to block and the defender is able to make the play.
If Utah had been in Man coverage or if the H-Back had kept his head up this might have been a five yard gain, instead it just goes back to the line of scrimmage.
When Eubank is in the game ASU's tendency is to run, but Coach Graham had Eubank throw a few passes in garbage time just to keep future opponents honest. Here is one of those garbage passes:
The Sun Devils have four wide and a fullback in the back field. Utah is coming with a Zone Blitz: the corner at the bottom of the screen and the middle line backer will blitz while the DE towards the top of the screen drops into coverage. ASU happened to have the perfect play call with a quick pass to a curl route.
Arizona State picks up the blitz in the center, they don't see the corner blitz but the pass is long gone before the corner can cover the distance to the QB.
ASU doesn't commit as many flagrant penalties as we are used to though there may be some designed penalties. They have execution errors too but make no mistake this is a talented team and better coached than in the past couple of seasons. They are capable of scoring extremely quickly and they play tenacious defense. Cal will have to score touchdowns and score them early to avoid falling far behind. Missouri won by holding ASU to only 20 points. I think if Cal's defense can hold the Sun Devils to under 30 then the team will have a shot at a win.