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Saturday Showdown: Previewing the Arizona State Defense

Where playing defense is optional

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Texas-San Antonio Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

For a guy who started his career as a defensive assistant, Todd Graham’s team doesn’t seem to mirror his expertise. Just two weeks after giving up 55 points to Texas Tech, the Sun Devils host a loaded Cal offense with many questions on the defensive side of the ball. The Sun Devils by and large are a puzzling team, one that looked poised to take a spot atop the conference last year and came tumbling down back to reality in a disappointing 2015 season.

The Sun Devils run a similar, bend don’t break, style of defense we have seen at Cal over the last three seasons. It should come as no surprise that this Saturday we will see two of the conference’s worst defenses, in what should prove to be a game that is determined by turnover margin rather than defensive prowess. In what is great news for Cal quarterback Davis Webb, Arizona State gives up most of their big plays through the air and the Cal signal caller should be in line for another stellar day.

On a positive note for Arizona State, the Sun Devils run a very aggressive style of defense that has proven to be somewhat effective. Look no further than their sterling 3-0 record as evidence of their success. Their defense has played well enough to allow them to win the game, albeit barely in the Tech matchup. Yet the Sun Devils cannot be overlooked and despite the clear advantage in favor of the Cal offense, the beginning of conference play can always yield unforeseen outcomes. Let’s take a deeper look at Todd Graham’s defense below.

Defensive Line:

With all the issues defending the pass, Arizona State did have one of the better rushing defenses in the country last season. They finished in the top 20 in both total rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per game at 124.4 yards per contest. The issue is they sacrifice their ability to defend the pass by bringing linebackers to help aid their three man front.

The line itself returns a fair amount of talent with experienced players and so far is in the top ten in the county in rush yards allowed per game.


The biggest issue across the defensive line for the Sun Devils isn’t a lack of talent, rather their inability to pressure the quarterback. The line struggled mightily in passing situations, failing to cause havoc at an alarmingly low rate last season (one of the worst in the Pac-12). With Cal’s senior offensive line, it could spell doom if Arizona State cannot get any pressure Davis Webb.


The most exciting unit for the Sun Devils is at linebacker. They use their linebackers to create a lot of their defensive pressure by having a linebacker (“the devil”) line up at the end position. Last season Salamo Fiso had 20 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks which is an incredible performance from a linebacker taking on bigger sized offensive lineman. The linebacking corps sets the tone for the rest of the defense. If they can have success coming off the edge and collapsing the pocket, the secondary can focus more on defending the pass. Without the linebacker rush presence you have something like the Texas Tech performance (see below).

Arizona State depends on their “devil” position at linebacker to cause havoc necessary to create a turnover or put the other team in a long yardage situation. The issue with that strategy is Cal has an excellent offensive line and they did a fantastic job preventing Texas from getting to Webb last Saturday. Arizona State also takes a lot more risks defensively than Texas which over the span of the game can lead to bigger opportunities for opposing offenses. Check out their quarter by quarter rankings below as well as their efficiency in first, second and third down situations.

SB Nation

The strategy seems to be most effective to start the game as teams look to establish the run and take a more balanced approach. Later in the game, the defense drops drastically to one of the very worst in college football. The down by down breakdown supports the idea that the Sun Devils excel in running situations but struggle mightily when teams are throwing the football downfield. Their success as a defensive unit starts and ends with their linebackers.


Unfortunately for the Sun Devils they lost three starters in their secondary from last season and have to lean on younger players to fill the void. That didn’t end up being a successful formula last year and hasn’t led to success yet this season either. Kareem Orr is a solid player and logged six interceptions last year, he should be the player to watch in the secondary. The issue for the Sun Devils is his surrounding cast, which lacks experience and suffers from giving up multiple big plays. Cal has a major mismatch with their receivers and any one of their offensive threats could be in line for a monster game. If I had to choose any Bear receiver to breakout, Demetris Robertson over the top of the less athletic secondary could have a field day.

Final Analysis:

This is a game the Bears have to win, it plays to their strengths with their high profile offense and their defense can outpace the Sun Devils. Don’t be surprised to see Sonny and company move a bit more towards a pass happy offense (closer to what we saw in San Diego) with the Sun Devils known issues in the secondary and their stout run defense. If Arizona State can keep plays in front of them it should just as much fun as last year when we saw each defense playing their version of the bend not break style. Cal has too many weapons to not put up a large figure on the scoreboard Saturday night, think #drop50 folks, and the Bears should walk out of Tempe with their first conference victory.