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Arizona State football eyeing a turnaround for pass rush

(Photo: ASU Athletics)

For the first time in Todd Graham’s tenure as head football coach at Arizona State, the team was held an entire game without a sack, as no Sun Devil was able to bring down Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees in the team’s 37-34 loss on Saturday.

Perhaps it would’ve been more of a shocking statistic had ASU not been limited to a single sack in each of the first three games of the season before finally breaking loose with four sacks against the USC Trojans. Still, the lack of productivity doesn’t have the team concerned.

“We’ve just been playing against some good offensive lines,” All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton said. “We’ve been getting pressure.”

Against lesser offensive lines in the 2012 season, the Sun Devils managed to tally 20 sacks in the first five games with the duo of Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford combining for 10. By season’s end, the team had accumulated 51 sacks with Sutton and Bradford accounting for 23.5.

After such a dominant season for the tandem, opposing teams took notice and have done whatever they can to ensure that their quarterbacks stay upright. Through five games in 2013, ASU has managed to bring down opposing passers just seven times with Bradford and Sutton combining for only three sacks.

“Carl [Bradford] and I just need to learn how to play through the double teams,” Sutton said. “We have teams that are match protecting, slide protecting, rolling out, play action. It’s tough, but we’ve got to keep working and make things happen.”

Graham also shrugged off concern about the team’s struggles to rack up the gaudy sack numbers they did in 2012. “We’ve come very close to getting some sacks,” he said in his Monday press conference. “I think the teams that we’ve played have done a very good job of getting the ball out and getting the ball off.“

Getting the ball out quickly is always a good way to neutralize a pass rush, but the simple way to combat that approach is to play tighter coverage. Graham admitted that the team’s coverage has taken a step back from where it was a year prior, when Deveron Carr and Keelan Johnson started in the team’s secondary.

Carr and Johnson, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively, each earned All-Pac-12 honorable mentions for their senior campaigns, and that quality of play hasn’t been replicated in 2013.

Still, the easiest explanation for the lack of sacks is a level of competition far beyond what the Sun Devils faced in 2012. Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Stanford each rank in top 16 in the nation in sacks allowed, as none of the three teams have allowed more than five sacks this season.

With seven Pac-12 games left on the schedule for ASU, the measuring stick for the pass rush can now be more appropriately be used.

“A lot of people look and say, ‘Where were you last year in sacks and TFLs?’ It wasn’t even close, but we’ve also played different people,” Graham said. “Well now we’re not playing different people. We’re playing the same people we played last year, so we better see that productivity go way up for us to be successful.”

That success and production will have to begin on Saturday against the Colorado Buffaloes, a team that the Sun Devils preyed on to the tune of five sacks in 2012. Kickoff at Sun Devil Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m. and television coverage will be provided by Pac-12 Networks.

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