Week one went as expected for the No. 17 Arizona State Sun Devils. Weber State posed little in the form of a challenge, and the Sun Devils were able to pull their starters just after the half. Unfortunately for Arizona State, the opponent this week doesn't get any harder.
The New Mexico Lobos are bad. Perpetually one of the worst teams in college football, the Lobos brought in former Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie prior to the 2012 season, but Davie has failed to turn the program around.
Still, New Mexico poses one mighty, glaring challenge: they run the triple-option. Year after year a team from one of the five powerhouse conferences loses to a significantly less talented team because they can't stop the triple-option attack. Last year, it was Florida who was humiliated by Georgia Southern, in Gainesville, because the Gators couldn't stop the run.
The triple-option isn't rocket science. Defending it, in principal, is actually quite simple. But there's one major factor that will make or break this game, and that brings us to this week's Matchup of the Week:
Sun Devil Linebackers vs. Assignment Football
Defending the option is 100 percent reliant on playing disciplined, assignment football on defense. In particular, the linebackers are key to stopping the option, especially in Arizona State's hybrid 3-4 front.
The triple-option key's on the defensive end and outside linebacker, but because of the front's Arizona State presents, there are going to be times where both option defenders are linebackers.
Consequently, the inverted veer, a variation of the option that has become increasingly popular, keys in on the middle linebacker. This is where the youth of Arizona State's linebacker corps could really hurt.
Edmond Boateng could be the key to this game defensively for the Sun Devils. The redshirt sophomore has to stay in his zone, run the play called and, as hard as this sounds, ignore where the football is. If Boateng's job is to play outside contain, he has to stand his ground, even if he thinks New Mexico quarterback Clayton Mitchem handed the ball off.
Mitchem will be making his first start of the season, after regular quarterback Cole Gautsche injured his hamstring in a loss to UTEP last week. Gautsche rushed for 184 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the loss, and that's just a glimpse of what the quarterback can do in Davie's offense if Boateng blows assignment.
Laiu Moeakiola is in the same boat. His biggest adjustment will be not following Mitchem's eyes, as the converted safety has been trained his entire career to follow the opposing quarterback's eyes. Eyes are deceiving in the option; it's really easy for Mitchem to look down, as if he's handing the ball off, or look outside for the pitch option, and make an opposing linebacker bite. Again, assignments are key here.
Todd Graham has stressed the importance of zone blitzing this week, and when a defender misses an assignment on zone blitzes, big plays usually result. This is where DJ Calhoun will play a big role. The freshman needs to hit anyone and everyone that comes through the A or B gap, regardless of if they have the ball or not. The second Calhoun allows his eyes to start drifting with the quarterback or pitch option, New Mexico is going to hand if off and Calhoun will be left flat-footed.
New Mexico would be smart to try and take advantage of a young, aggressive defense, by running play-action pass and screen plays early and often. The best way for the Lobos to win this game is to keep the Sun Devils offense off the field, and mixing and matching could confuse the underclassmen-heavy Sun Devils and lead to mistakes and sustained offensive drives.
This is where Salamo Fiso will likely have to shine for Arizona State. The leader of the linebackers is likely to draw the assignment of spying Mitchem. With this comes the job of identifying screens and disrupting the play before it gets started. Once a screen pass is set and completed, it's almost always successful. But when a defender gets in the passing lanes, or can square up the receiver, opportunities arise for a big defensive play instead.
It all sounds so simple. Play with your brain, don't overreact and don't leave your assignments. That's what everyone says before they play a triple-option team. The problem is never knowledge. Instead, it's execution. If the Sun Devils execute, this game should be just as easy as the Weber State win. If they don't, it could be along day in Albuquerque.