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ASU Football: Sun Devil defense dominates on the big stage

(Photo: Allyson Cummings/WCSN)

It’s all coming together for the Arizona State defense.

The Sun Devils started the season with questions at almost every position after losing nine starters from last year’s squad. The defense struggled early on but lately it has shown flashes of how good they could be.

On Saturday, they put together their most complete effort as the Sun Devils took down Notre Dame 55-31. True, the defense gave up 31 points and 487 yards of offense, but they forced five turnovers and sacked Irish quarterback Everett Golson seven times. Both season highs.

The effort was fueled by the defensive line, a unit scrutinized early in the season for its lack of production. The Sun Devils had problems stopping the run and, more importantly, pressuring the quarterback.

This is not the same defensive line we saw then.

Against Notre Dame, the Sun Devil defensive line sparked a 21-point burst by forcing three turnovers in the span of four minutes late in the first quarter and early in the second.

Tashon Smallwood forced and recovered a fumble on his first sack of the season. Marcus Hardison intercepted a pass, tipped by fellow lineman Demetrius Cherry, and then tipped a pass himself that was intercepted by safety Damarious Randall and returned for a touchdown.

It was chaos and that’s what the Sun Devils wanted. The final stat line for the defensive line: nine tackles, three sacks, one fumble recovery, one interception and three pass breakups. The Sun Devils also dominated Notre Dame’s running game, holding the Irish to 41 yards on 38 carries.

“It was a pretty good game,” Hardison said afterwards.  “Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t communicating as well as we should have at the beginning of the second half.  But, so far, this was one of the best games. We will continue to get better.”

The Sun Devils blitzed like crazy as they always do, but with the defensive line playing this well, Notre Dame could not block the defensive line one-on-one. The Irish tried to double-team defensive linemen leaving linebackers and defensive backs free to attack Golson.

Although he was able to escape several times, Golson was frequently harassed and in some cases could not even carry out a play-action fake without a Sun Devil getting near him. Golson finished with 16 carries for minus-11 yards.

“He was the biggest challenge we’ve had to this point,” head coach Todd Graham said of preparing for Golson, noting Golson’s passing and running ability. Graham said the main goal was to get Golson to move forward in the pocket and try to bat down passes.

“Getting pressure on a mobile quarterback is kind of like their kryptonite because they just want to sit back in the pocket and run whenever stuff is not open, so just pressure them a lot,” Randall said. “We just forced him to play for us.”

In the second half, Golson threw for 296 yards, but it’s hard to blame the defense for that. The offense was conservative and could not move the ball, leaving the defense out for more plays than they should have.

In the end, the Sun Devils made winning plays, forcing another interception and sacking Golson for a 22-yard loss late in the fourth quarter. Not bad for a young defense in crunch time of a crucial game.

And the scary thing is, with so many young players, the Sun Devils are only going to get better on defense. Hardison is a senior, but if the younger players on the line can play at this high of a level consistently, there’s really no telling how good the defense can be for the rest of this year or in years to come.

And that’s pretty scary for the rest of the country.

You can reach Matt Harden on Twitter @MattHarden_

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