(Photo: ASU Athletics)
It’s homecoming weekend here at Arizona State University. Students, fans, faculty, and alumni can take part in traditions such as Sparky’s 5k, Sparky’s Carnival, and the Lantern Walk (whose importance will come up later in this article). The theme for this year’s homecoming is “All that Glitters is Gold,” with every letter in the word Gold highlighted, yes, in gold.
But things may get dark and gloomy, despite tomorrow’s game start time of 3 p.m., when the Washington Huskies take the field. These Huskies will be hunting for blood.
Washington is fresh off two straight losses to top-five ranked teams, in Stanford (who was No. 5 at the time) and No. 2 ranked Oregon. Despite statistically dominating Stanford, 489 total yards (350 from QB Keith Price alone) compared to 279 for Stanford. The Huskies fell short in Palo Alto 28-31, thanks in part to ten penalties. The following week, Washington hung tough with the Ducks for three quarters, but Oregon turned it on late to win 45-24.
The Huskies enter today’s game with the second-leading rusher in the country, running back Bishop Sankey, who has amassed 899 yards on the ground leads the country in rushing yards per game with 149. He faces an ASU rush defense that allows 168 rushing yards per game and ranks 75th in country against the run. Stop me if you see where I am going with this. And I’m sure you do.
For six weeks all the ASU defense has seen, read, and heard about is how bad they are at stopping opposing running backs, and if the Sun Devils can’t stop the run they won’t win. Rightfully so, they are bad; in fact, downright terrible.
There is no doubt that it affects how the players think.
“It starts up front every single game. Every game is won and loss up front,” said nose tackle Jaxon Hood. “If we don’t stop the run we won’t win.”
“They have a really good running back in Sankey, so the number one thing is stop number 25 [Bishop Sankey] because as he goes their offense goes,” said safety Damarious Randall.
That is what I believe is the problem: mindset.
Coaches and players speak in impossible hyperboles. “We have to shut down their run game,” or “We must stop them on defense.” What all that actually means is “we need to limit their big plays in the run game,” and “we must make things tough on their offense.”
I totally get it; coaches and players strive for perfection and domination in every aspect of the game. I applaud the enthusiasm and willingness of the ASU defense to fix their weakness; they want to be a great all-around defense.
But in the words of Dennis Green: “They are who we thought they were.” And this Arizona State defense is exactly who we thought they were. An attacking, fast-paced defense that likes to bring pressure to create turnovers because they are a team that will struggle against the run.
Instead of constantly drilling rush defense, I say make what you do best into what you do great. Over the past three games ASU has forced nine turnovers while playing solid pass defense. The Sun Devils rank 31st in the country against the pass, allowing 203 yards per game. This is also a very disciplined defense that won’t beat themselves with penalties, as ASU ranks seventh in the country in fewest penalties per game.
That should be the focus for ASU moving forward: looking at the positives instead of the negatives, like strategizing new ways to bring pressure and implementing pass coverage that will confuse opposing quarterbacks. Because the strength of this defense is in its speed, versatility, and discipline, not in going heads up against opposing offensive lines, and selling out against the run.
Think of the defense as a reflection of the offense. The Sun Devil offense doesn’t try to line up and play smash mouth football. Instead the strategy is to play up-tempo in order to take advantage of their skill set. So if the offense isn’t playing to their weaknesses, why would the defense?
Who knows, perhaps simplifying the defensive game plan and having the players focus on their strengths will prove beneficial in stopping Washington’s top dog, or it could completely flop. But at this point, against Bishop Sankey, it couldn’t hurt.
Back to the significance of the Lantern Walk: at ASU, the Lantern Walk is the oldest tradition the school has. It started in 1917, “as a symbolic passing of the torch from the senior class to the junior class.”
I think it’s time to see a passing of the torch in terms of defensive philosophy where players are focused on their strengths.
“Just doing what we do best, playing good, hard, fast, physical defense,” said Hood.
“It is all just one thing, the pursuit to the football, we got to have 11 players running to the ball,” said Randall.