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Bring on Bucky: Analyzing Arizona State's Defense After 55-0 Win

The Sun Devil defense notched its first shut out at home since the 42-0 beat down of Washington State in 2010.

The defensive line shut down the run against Sacramento State.
The defensive line shut down the run against Sacramento State.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

It took more than three quarters of game action, but when Arizona State held a 55-0 advantage, a Sun Devil defender finally recorded the first sack of the season.

If you had Antonio Longino in your office pool, the person running your pool probably came to your cubicle last. But fear not, as the reserve linebacker scored you the admiration of your coworkers when he took down Sacramento State backup Jihad Vercher for a 13-yard loss.

There's not much to pick apart after such a dominating effort, but it's hard for Arizona State fans to look past the stat sheet and notice that neither Will Sutton nor Carl Bradford recorded a sack on Thursday. Longino's sack stands as the only sack the Sun Devils recorded against the Hornets and many fans have expressed concern.

After all, we've come to expect that Sutton and Bradford will shine against every opponent, so it only makes sense that they would hold their own against Sacramento State.

Why didn't the all-stars put up gaudy numbers? It all comes down to Sacramento State's scheme.

When they fell behind early, the Hornets quickly went into surrender mode and resorted to three-step drops on passes and running between the tackles on rushing places. This style of play is not conducive to sacks and tackles for loss, but it's not conducive to winning either.

Sacramento State knew it was outmatched at the point of attack and coach Marshall Sperbeck opted to protect his players by playing conservatively instead of risking injury against the behemoths known as Sutton and Bradford.

Sun Devil fans have nothing to worry about. The numbers will come against teams that test Arizona State because those teams will take risks. And when they do, you better believe that Sutton and Bradford will be chomping at the bit.

Arizona State on Defense

Stats to Know

  • The Sun Devils allowed four first downs on the opening drive, and did not give up a first down the rest of the half.
  • Arizona State's last shutout of a nonconference opponent came on September 21, 1996 against Nebraska. Every Sun Devil fan old enough to know remembers how that finished the season.
  • The Sun Devils allowed 167 yards of offense and 59 of those yards came on the Hornets' first drive of the game.
  • Arizona State forced four turnovers (two interceptions and two fumbles) and did not commit a penalty.
  • The Hornets crossed midfield twice on the evening.

In The Air

The Sun Devil pass defense looked vulnerable on the Hornets' first drive of the game. The secondary took a few plays to get adjusted and Hornets' quarterback Garrett Safron looked comfortable in making his progressions and hitting his receivers in timing routes. Arizona State recovered, but Todd Graham wasn't pleased with the way his defense started the game.

"I was kind of mad," Graham said. "I was trying to figure out a way to stop them, so that's about it. We were supposed to be down, but we were off."

Sacramento State rushed for just six yards on the opening drive which meant that 53 of their yards came through the air. After the Sun Devils blocked a field goal and the offense gave Arizona State a 7-0 lead, the defense settled in and wreaked havoc all night.

The Hornets used three-step drops and timing routes, but the Sun Devil defensive backs were simply too fast to allow any kind of separation from receivers. Safeties Alden Darby and Laiu Moeakiola complimented each other well in coverage, and Darby provided run support at times throughout the night.

Osahon Irabor has quietly become one of the Pac-12's best cornerbacks and he had another penalty-free night after making it through last year unscathed. Irabor's technique is much improved from his 2011 season and he will be a catalyst in shutting down passing attacks all year.

Both interceptions came from rotational linebackers as Anthony Jones found himself in the right place at the right time in zone coverage whereas Grandville Taylor jumped a quick out route off of a three-step drop. Taylor's return was phenomenal and it ultimately set up Michael Eubank's touchdown run.

The Sun Devils will face an inexperienced quarterback in Badgers' sophomore Joel Stave next week. If the Badgers decide to test Arizona State through the air, we'll have a better indication of just how comfortable this unit is in coverage.

On the Ground
One of Arizona State's biggest concerns coming into the season was the run defense and the Sun Devils looked much improved last night. It's too early to tell if Will Sutton and Co. will actually make strides, but the one takeaway from last night's outing is that the longest run they surrendered was an eight-yard quarterback keeper.

The Sun Devils allowed just 51 yards on the ground and bottled up most plays at the line of scrimmage. Hornets' back Ezekiel Graham carried 11 times and gained just 26 yards before coming out to preserve his health.

The linebacker support in run fill was encouraging and it looked to us like the Sun Devils rarely missed on their tackling attempts. Of course, Todd Graham will fill everyone in on where the defense can improve as missed tackles are a coach's nightmare.

Some of the standouts from Thursday night include redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso and redshirt sophomore Mo Latu. Fiso led Arizona State with four tackles and drove Ezekiel Graham back with an impressive form tackle midway through the game. Latu is playing with extra weight that the coaching staff would like to see him shed during the season, but he still managed to force a fumble with great pursuit on an outside running play.

It would be easy to get carried away with the Sun Devils' performance, but we'll wait until Wisconsin rolls through Tempe to really breakdown the defense.

In breaking down the offense, we noted that Arizona State committed just one penalty for five yards. Because that penalty was a delay of game, that means the Sun Devil defense made it through the game without being penalized. This type of outing will appease the coaching staff, but Todd Graham also expects games like this.

Co-Defensive coordinators Paul Randolph and Chris Ball did an excellent job in putting their players in position to make plays without revealing any wrinkles in the playbook. When the Sun Devils blitzed, it was typically one extra player applying pressure and the coverages were basic.

Junior Onyeali and Davon Coleman rotated in on third and long plays as pass rush specialists which is something that we should expect to see from here on out. The linebacking unit also rotated players frequently, but it's hard to get a read on who has a leg up in the competition for playing time against a team like Sacramento State.

The Bottom Line
Arizona State's defense took a few plays to get going, but once it did, it didn't take long for the Sun Devils to establish their dominance. Players played within the scheme and each man performed his responsibilities well. That means there were no blown coverages, no missed assignments, and no big plays.

"We gave up a few passes I didn't like, but I‘d rather be stopping that run," Graham said. "The biggest thing that I was encouraged with tonight was the discipline. I'm hearing our guys coach each other."

The only question mark, and it's a big one, is the health of linebacker Chris Young. Young suffered an apparent knee injury last night and the Sun Devils need the veteran linebacker to return to action as soon as possible. Young's versatility is unparalleled and he's too important to this defense to miss an extended period of time. We'll know more about his health this week, but here's to a quick recovery.