(Photo: Allyson Cummings/WCSN)
The College Football Playoff bracket will be set in less than a month, which leaves four weeks of bickering amongst fans about the merits of each team in contention for a spot in the four-team postseason tournament.
For the Arizona State Sun Devils, there really isn’t any ambiguity or debate to be had. If the team wins its last three regular season games and manages to beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship Game, it will undoubtedly advance to the playoff.
Still, many have questioned and will continue to question whether a team with a 35-point loss at any point in the season could be one of the four best teams in the nation. The answer in this instance is a little more complicated than that, as the ASU team that defeated Notre Dame, 55-31, on Saturday is simply not the same one that lost to UCLA in September, 62-27.
The ASU defense, in particular, is an extremely different group than the one that was shredded by the Bruins in more ways than one:
1) Inexperience is no longer in the spotlight
After losing nine starters following the 2013 season, inexperience was highlighted in essentially every bit of offseason chatter about the ASU defense. Nine games into the 2014 season that inexperience has waned some, but head coach Todd Graham made some personnel changes that quite literally removed inexperience from the defensive lineup.
Early in the year, multiple true freshman started on the Sun Devils defense. Those days are no more. Defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood, linebacker D.J. Calhoun and cornerback Armand Perry all got starting time early in the year and linebacker Christian Sam got extensive play time in lieu of an injury to Laiu Moeakiola.
All four showed tremendous promise in that playing time, but if there’s one thing that ASU struggled with especially in the first games of the season, it was critical errors. In the UCLA game alone, the Bruins managed to rack up five plays of 80 yards or more.
Those blown coverages and big plays allowed early in the year disappeared after the USC game, which coincided with the coaches’ decision to remove every freshman from the starting lineup of the defense. Maybe it wasn’t the fact that Smallwood and Calhoun are freshmen that led to their replacement in the lineup, but the more experienced lineup of older players have undoubtedly been better at avoiding the allowance of big plays.
2) No more square pegs in round holes
There is no question that Graham has done a tremendous job since taking over the head coaching position at ASU, and his coaching of the defense in 2014 may be his most impressive job in Tempe. That said, it hasn’t been a completely perfect job and that may be due to a little bit of stubbornness from the pressure-happy coach.
“Our number one pressure last year that we ran with Carl [Bradford] and Will [Sutton] is our worst pressure this year,” Graham said. “And for some reason I won’t quit calling it. I just don’t understand why it won’t work so we had to adjust to [the players].”
That adjustment took some time, and one of the biggest examples of stubbornness by the coaches was the refusal to admit that there wasn’t a player on the team that could fill the void left by the departure of Bradford. Instead it took until the Stanford game for Graham and company to admit to themselves that the Devil-backer position was obsolete.
Rather than force De’Marieya Nelson, Antonio Longino and Edmond Boateng to put on their best Bradford impression, Graham ditched the role in its traditional sense and found success with Demetrius Cherry in the starting lineup.
The Devil-backer is typically an undersized pass rusher, but instead the team is relying on a 300-pound lineman who has yet to record a sack and has just one tackle for loss, yet the result of the change has been an undeniable success and has freed up Marcus Hardison to dominate on the opposite side.
3) The defense has swagger
Yes, it’s the kickoff team, but the crew of dancing Sun Devils on kickoff coverage were mostly defensive backs and if this video doesn’t convince you that there’s a confidence and swagger about ASU right now, I’m not sure what will.
After a shaky start to the year, the ASU defense had every reason to doubt itself. After borderline dominant showings in four consecutive victories, there’s simply a different mindset on the defensive side of the ball for the Sun Devils.
It’s not quantifiable and it’s not something that statistics can truly do justice. But here are a couple statistics anyway:
- Average yards allowed per play in the five games prior to the victory over Notre Dame: UCLA (10 yards/play), USC (5.19 yards/play), Stanford (4.72 yards/play), Washington (4.03 yards/play), Utah (3.26 yards/play). That number spiked back to 6.16 yards/play against the Fighting Irish, although it’s hard to say that a day that featured five forced turnovers was a poor performance.
- Notre Dame’s 10 points in the first half on Saturday were the most allowed by the ASU defense in over a month. Utah managed just six, while Stanford and Washington were both shutout in the first two quarters against the Sun Devils defense.
Those statistics show a defense that is much better than the one that was shredded by UCLA and USC, but what they don’t show are the swagger and the confidence that the ASU defense has developed in the time since a blowout loss to UCLA.
Simply put, it’s not the same defense. It’s not the same players, it’s not the same scheme and it’s not the same mentality. The Arizona State defense is just plain better and it’s no fluke. The fluke was a loss to UCLA that was an anomaly and doesn’t represent the Sun Devils now: A legitimately good football team that is strong on both sides of the ball and capable of beating any team in the nation if it plays like it did in the first half on Saturday.