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ASU Football: State of the defense

(Photo: ASU Athletics)

With another week of practice in the books and the top story continuing to be speculation on the health of Taylor Kelly, the discussion on the state of the Sun Devil defense has been limited and watered down.

The general consensus among pundits is that the defense enjoyed far greater success against USC than it did against UCLA. On first glance—225 rushing yards allowed to UCLA followed by 220 rushing yards allowed to USC—it may be difficult to make that argument.

The players and coaches firmly believe in the improved effort, however, as they all cite limiting big plays of 80+ yards to zero (there were five of the sort against UCLA) and executing fundamental open-field tackles.

“We played wonderful,” said freshman linebacker DJ Calhoun. “We excelled in practice last week. Our communication was good, our tackling was good—way better than UCLA. We knew we had to do something special. Everyone was talking trash about our defense, how we can’t tackle, so that made us angry. We came in wanting to take care of business.”

Senior safety Damarious Randall had similar thoughts.

“I feel like we played great,” Randall said. “We probably had a couple of mistakes, but overall I feel we played great as a defense. We didn’t create any turnovers, but we created a lot of three-and-outs. I think we controlled the game.”

Despite the preached improvement from the defense, questions still loom.

With the focus now moving to Stanford, another one of Graham’s tactical decisions this week was to deviate from the traditional 3-4 hybrid defense and to implement a 4-3 jumbo package.

Now with four defensive lineman in the mix, the hybrid defensive end/linebacker in the Devilbacker position has become obsolete (at least for this defensive look).

Though not commenting on the specifics of schemes is a trademark of Graham, he did acknowledge that he is inclined to continue to use a rotation on the defensive line:

“Up front, I do like the rotation. I think playing more guys, keeping them fresh, is good. It’s frantic. Those no-huddles are really frantic—that’s what’s caused us to have 10 guys on the field. Last year it was easier because we had the same 11 guys out there most of the time.”

Implementation of a 4-3 jumbo package definitely conveys a desire and a focus to stop the run. After all, the Sun Devil defense has been porous lately, and now hosts a team that the most renowned for opening up holes for its runners.

The dilemma is, the 2014 Stanford is a bit different from the Stanford of year’s past. Though 150.1 rushing yards per game this season is nothing to scoff at, it is an alarming dip from the 207.4 mark posted just a year ago. On a similar note, the prototypical workhorse every-down running back that Stanford has enjoyed each of the past six seasons (Toby Gerhart in 2008 and 2009, Stepfan Taylor from 2010-2012 and Tyler Gaffney in 2013) has yet to emerge this season.

Also, as was evidenced a few times in Stanford’s contest against Washington State on Friday night, the Cardinal have shown an inclination to pass or run the wild cat with superstar wideout Ty Montgomery in goal-line situations—circumstances that would have been no-brainer three-consecutive plows forward by the running back or full back in years past.

Ever in-tune with the subtleties of the opposing team, Randall acknowledge how scheming for the new-look Stanford Cardinal can be problematic.

“The game plan is to stop the run. But Stanford throws people off because people just think they run, run, run,” Randall said. If you really just look at it, most of their big plays and their quick touchdown strikes, it’s the play action pass that catches people sleeping. That’s the main focus if you ask me.”

After their bye week, the Sun Devils will host Stanford on October 18, and the defense will have all of its questions answered.

Follow Jacob Garcia on Twitter @Jake_M_Garcia or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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