Defensive Front Now Clicking Means Arizona State Might Be South's Team to Beat
It was only a matter of time before the sleeping giant that is the Arizona State defensive front seven would awaken.
The Sun Devils' alarm should sound a lot more like an air-raid siren to the rest of the Pac-12 South. Washington discovered firsthand just how dangerous Arizona State can be when it puts together a complete performance, combining aggressive blitzes and deceptive athleticism up front with sticky coverage in the secondary.
"Our guys made a statement with the No. 1 rusher in the country coming in, and holding [his team] to minus-5 yards," head coach Todd Graham said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call.
Arizona State put on a clinic. Husky running back Bishop Sankey came in leading the nation in rushing yards. He left Tempe, Ariz. with just 22 more yards than he brought. Not bad for a team that was struggling to stop the rush. "All along, I've known we're better than what the stats were showing," Graham said.
Rush defense was one of the Sun Devils' primary concerns through the season's first half. They allowed nearly 170 yards on the ground per game prior to Saturday's shutdown of Washington.
"We gave up a lot of big plays, long runs—couple against Wisconsin, couple against USC," Graham said. "That's what was killing our rush defense.”
Arizona State snuffed out the big play against Washington. It snuffed out any play, really. Sankey's long carry: Nine yards.
Reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton and fellow tackle Jaxon Hood bottled up Sankey in the middle, which allowed their counterparts on the outside to rush effectively.
It was a showing reminiscent of last season, when Arizona State made 51 sacks. It had just 10 before Saturday, but made up for lost time against Washington with seven. Graham cited new starters and players adjusting to different roles early in the season as reasons for the slow start
"We had a couple of new spots," he said. "We had some alignment issues at our outside linebacker [and] our Spur position."
Chris Young moved back to the Spur. Manning the inside linebacker position is Salamo Fiso, who made two sacks on Saturday.
While Sutton and stat-stuffing linebacker Carl Bradford were returning from the outstanding 2012 front seven, the Sun Devils had other pieces like Fiso to get up to speed.
"We play a four-down front, we play a three-man front," Graham said. "Our guys are very smart and able to execute a lot of schemes."
High football IQs or not, the intricacies of Arizona State's blitz-heavy scheme needed time. But now that the Sun Devils are finding their rhythm, the championship-caliber team pundits were touting in the preseason is starting to show.
Arizona State finished just behind defending division champion UCLA in the preseason media poll, with 10 votes to the Bruins' 12.
Heading into the backstretch of the schedule, it certainly looks like the South is coming down to these teams. The Sun Devils have to like their chances. Their style poses challenges to UCLA, as the similarly aggressive Stanford Cardinal stymied the Bruins last week.
Quarterback Brett Hundley took four sacks and was hurried nine times. Stanford led the nation in sacks a season ago.
Right behind it? Arizona State.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer for B/R. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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