(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
ASU football faces its first road test of the season Saturday as it travels to Lubbock, Texas to take on Texas Tech. The game comes at a time of uncertainty for the Sun Devils following a 30-20 home loss to San Diego State, one that highlighted a myriad concerns on both sides of the ball.
Last year’s game between the Red Raiders and Sun Devils was an offensive showcase, one where Kalen Ballage set records and two of the nation’s worst defenses were fully exposed.
This year, the Sun Devil secondary is younger and ASU coaches see visible improvement in Texas Tech’s defense, particularly in the front seven.
“They’ve made an effort in the offseason to simplify a little bit,” ASU offensive coordinator Billy Napier said. “I think that’s helped them. They’ve overhauled their personnel.”
The offseason brought changes to ASU’s personnel that could be cause for concern against the Red Raiders. A young secondary has yet to be tested by an air raid offense through the first two weeks, while the Sun Devil offensive line has struggled. If Tech’s front seven is really as improved as it appears on film, Manny Wilkins will have to continue performing under pressure.
Wilkins has played well through ASU’s first two games. A questionable TTU secondary provides the opportunity for another big day, but the game can’t rest on Wilkins’s shoulders. Establishing the run has been a point of emphasis for the Sun Devils all week after two subpar performances.
That turnaround starts with run blocking. Napier said the offensive line issues have been a product of the opponents ASU has played, but this week they’ve experimented with different personnel up front to find the right combination.
“We’re going to focus on what we need to do to play winning football,” Napier said. “We certainly need to improve fundamentally (and on) assignments.”
A stickler for the fundamentals himself, defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has been loud and clear about his expectations this week at practice. He’s not actively searching for new contributors, though, and has been criticized for leaving the same personnel out on the field for extended periods of time.
There won’t be much change to that philosophy Saturday — or to ASU’s scheme. Bennett scoffed at the idea of having an extra defensive back on the field and emphasized that limiting big gains will be of utmost importance. That was a major problem against San Diego State.
“You’ve got to minimize the explosion plays — everything they get they have to earn,” Bennett said. “There’ll be some yardage in between, but you want them to be from the 20 to 20.”
TTU is a familiar opponent for Bennett. He coached against the Red Raiders at Baylor and found relative success, so that knowledge will come in handy on Saturday as he tries to avoid becoming a “creature of habit” and reverting to his strategies at Baylor.
Avoiding past mistakes and tendencies will be important, but paramount in Bennett’s priorities is making sure his young secondary is ready. In studying film of Texas Tech he saw an improved run game and a passing attack that’s as dangerous as it’s been with past quarterbacks.
But Bennett is optimistic that his inexperienced defensive backfield will hold up. He observed very few blown assignments in the first two games, claiming that most of the passes that were completed against the Sun Devils came in traffic.
“Coverage is about distribution and numbers,” Bennett said. “If you keep doing that and you get a little bit stronger at reception point, then you’ve got a chance to stay in the game.”
ASU needs this victory for its confidence and to build momentum moving forward. A brutal Pac-12 gauntlet lies ahead and dropping to 1-2 will seriously jeopardize its chances of being bowl eligible.
Head coach Todd Graham knows the stakes. He knows the offensive line needs to be exponentially better, he knows the run game needs a spark and he knows the defense has to play its best game so far.
All that’s left is for the Sun Devils to rise to the occasion and leave Lubbock with optimism for the road ahead.
“I think that it’s a big challenge,” Graham said. “But our deal is finding out somehow, some way to get a win and then get ready for conference play.”