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ASU Football: Defense, special teams rise to the occasion in victory over Stanford

Damarious Randall celebrating after fielding the muffed punt.
Damarious Randall celebrating after fielding the muffed punt.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Coming in to Saturday, Arizona State was giving up 27.8 points per game and 185.3 yards per game on the ground. The last game at Sun Devil Stadium saw an abysmal tackling performance by the maroon and gold and coverages were blown with regularity. They allowed five plays of 80 yards or more that night against UCLA and were run out of the building in an embarrassing 62-27 defeat.

Now who would have guessed this Sun Devil team would be where they are, just three weeks removed from that night. Sure, Arizona State was wearing different colored uniforms, but it hardly even looked like the same team against Stanford Saturday.

"It's just mental focus," senior safety Damarious Randall said. "Basically, the only way people can score on us is if we make mental errors. Coach Graham and the coaching staff put us in a great position to make a lot of great, great plays, so the only way that teams can get yardage and score on us is if we have mental errors and mental breakdowns."

The mental errors were few and far between against the Cardinal. Randall had a monster sack of Kevin Hogan and finished second on the team with seven tackles. He even had the presence of mind to recover a muffed punt by Stanford punt returner Ty Montgomery in the second quarter, which Arizona State was able to take advantage of and score a touchdown to put the Sun Devils up 14-0.

"I actually released off the gunner," Randall said.  "I saw him going back. I saw that it was a deep, deep punt. Normally, whenever it's a left-footed punter, and I actually have trouble feeling Matt Haack in practice, but I was going to make the tackle. I saw that he had muffed it, so I ended up pushing him out of the way and ended up getting the turnover."

Stanford managed just 288 total yards, and 3.5 yards per carry with no one Cardinal gaining more than 43 yards on the ground. It's only the second time in 31 games that Stanford has been held under 100 yards rushing in a game. The Sun Devils also forced seven Stanford punts. On top of that, Arizona State had eight pass break ups, three forced fumbles and five tackles for loss.

"It had something to do with our focus," redshirt junior defensive back Lloyd Carrington said. "I really just think we came out playing our game. We're an attacking-style defense. For a couple of weeks, we tried to make different adjustments for certain teams, but Coach Graham put his foot forward and said, 'Be us. We're going to play our style of defense and attack Stanford no matter what they run.' He just had the confidence in us to make plays."

Among the other standouts was junior college  transfer and corner Kweishi Brown. He didn't earn his first start until the UCLA game and didn't look good that night or all that great against USC either. Against the Cardinal he had five pass break-ups and six tackles.

"At the end of the game he (Brown) was about to fall down and kept looking to me like I was going to take him out," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. "That didn't cross my mind. I think he's really grown up...he's such a solid person."

The Sun Devils also finally did their part on special teams. Montgomery was held to just 57 yards on kick return and actually had negative 14 yards on punt return. Matt Haack booted two punts an average of 45 yards and Mike Bercovici punted twice as well, deadening one punt at the 1-yard line. Kyle Middlebrooks returned his only kickoff 32 yards.

"He is a monster," Graham said of Middlebrooks.  "As a coach you try to find heart and will and he wants to be that player so bad. He does such a great job and now the other 10 guys feed off that. With that they want to block for him. He did a great job doing all the returning of us. We needed to win special teams and have ball security and we did that tonight."

Part of what allowed the Sun Devils to have success is the way in which they practiced. The team does tackling for 15 minutes every practice, but according to Graham the team focused more on the fundamentals again last week during the bye.

"We spent a lot of hours on it," Graham said. "Coach Patterson and I got a couple gray hairs from it. We worked on it and our guys executed it. They did a great job tonight with making adjustments."

The Sun Devils also entered some very rare air when it comes to holding the Stanford offense at bay. It was the first time Stanford had been shut out in the first quarter in 87 games, the last time it happened was against Washington State in 2007. It was also the first time Arizona State had held a defense scoreless in the first quarter since last season against Notre Dame.

It was the most complete game by a Sun Devil defense this season without a doubt. It may have taken this group half the season to figure themselves out, but they developed an identity between the USC and Stanford games and it showed Saturday.

"That is our gameplan as an attacking style defense," Randall said. "That's just what we do. We like to put pressure on the quarterback so he forces turnovers, TFLs and sacks."

The Sun Devils were well prepared by the coaching staff with numerous blitz packages off the edge, up the middle and from any given player at any given time. Now the only question left is whether or not Arizona State can keep up this level of defense with any marked consistency, a task that is easier said than done given the parity in the Pac-12 this season.