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ASU Football: Sun Devil defense to face third Air Raid offense of the season

Washington State uses the purest Air Raid scheme ASU will face this season.

Arizona State v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The Air Raid offense is commonplace in college football, with the goal to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands and out to a variety of playmakers as quickly as possible. Variations exist, depending on the skill sets of the receivers, running backs and of course, the quarterback, but at its barebones, the pass-heavy offense is designed to be a high-tempo, high-stress offense for any defense to deal with.

On Saturday, the Arizona State Sun Devils square off against the man head coach Todd Graham cited as the “architect” of the Air Raid: Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach.

Sign-stealing accusations and pirate obsessions aside, Leach has always coached potent offenses, and this year’s Washington State team is no different.

With redshirt-junior quarterback Luke Falk orchestrating the Cougars’ attack for the third season, Washington State ranks No. 7 in the FBS in passing offense while Falk ranks sixth in the country in passing yards. Falk is also completing a country-leading 35.17 passes per game at 71.5 percent clip, which ranks second in the country behind Washington’s Jake Browning.

As imposing as all that may sound, Washington State is the third Air Raid offense ASU has faced this season, with the previous two being Texas Tech and California, the No.1 and No. 4 passing offenses in the country, respectively.

On the optimistic side, ASU came away with two wins in those games.

However, ASU yielded above-average passing yards to both teams, and the defensive performances in both games showcased more than a few head-scratching moments for the Sun Devil defense.

Statistically, this is how ASU performed against the two Air Raids vs. those teams’ season averages at this point of the season:

Texas Tech

Season average/vs. ASU:

  • 48.8 points per game/55 points
  • 510.8 passing per game/540 passing yards
  • 70.3 percent completed/71.7 percent completed
  • 9.3 yards per pass/10.2 yards per pass
  • 53 percent on 3rd down/46 percent on 3rd down

Cal

Season average/vs. ASU:

  • 42.3 points per game/41 points
  • 377.8 pass per game/478 passing yards
  • 60.9 percent completed/57.1 percent completed
  • 7.51 yards per pass/8.5 yards per pass
  • 42.57 percent on third down/41.17 percent on third down

As you can see, ASU didn’t exactly stop either offense. Although the team has repeated the fact that it couldn’t care less about the stats as long as the it came away with a win, it’d be silly to ignore the fact that the Sun Devil defense more or less struggled for the majority of both games. Yes, ASU did step up late in both games to pull away in both shootouts, but this is likely the purest and most efficient Air Raid offense the Sun Devils will face.

“It’s Falk’s third year in the system, so he’s more comfortable with ‘I know where to go with the ball,’” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “The key for us—the same things we tried to do against [Davis] Webb, the same things we tried to do against [Patrick] Mahomes—don’t just lineup in the coverage. Try to keep him off-balance by making him second-guess, maybe hold the ball a little longer.”

One way to make a quarterback second-guess is to put pressure on him, but the pass rush hasn’t been a consistent factor for ASU. Its 16 sacks on the season rank fifth in the conference, but junior Devilbacker Koron Crump says there are other ways to put pressure on a quarterback.

“Just let them know I’m coming,” he said. “The fact that they feel me coming. The fact that I tap them while they throw the ball, the fact that I’m in their face when they’re throwing the ball just helps a lot.”

The quarterback plays a crucial role in determining the style of a team’s Air Raid. For example, Mahomes was able to extend plays and move the pocket much more frequently than Webb, who made a bevy of adjustments pre-snap.

For redshirt-senior defensive back De’Chavon Hayes, Falk presents a different challenge than Mahomes and Webb, but nothing different in the big picture of the offense.

“Mahomes can move in the pocket really well and make you cover longer,” Hayes said. “I don’t really think this quarterback (Falk) can move in the pocket as well... I feel like they’re just similar to Texas Tech and Cal. They’ve got some vertical routes, they run some rubs. I don’t see anything different from the rest of the teams.”

Falk’s experience has fueled Washington State’s tendency to dominate time-of-possession (second in the Pac-12), wearing defenses down with an uptempo attack. The Sun Devils have said this week they hope to counteract that by rushing three defenders and flooding the secondary with bodies.

“We just have to put pressure on the quarterback,” ASU junior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said. “If we can create pressure with a 3-man rush, that would help out our back end.”

ASU’s defense remains a cellar-dweller statistically, and recently, it has dealt with critical injuries to two of its most consistent players. Defensive backs Armand Perry and Kareem Orr were limited in practice this week, though Graham expects both to play. Furthermore, junior linebacker DJ Calhoun was in a green, non-contact jersey this week, but all signs point toward him playing as well.

At face-value, a hobbled ASU defense against an experienced and efficient Washington State offense seems like a bleak situation for the Sun Devils. A plethora of reasons to doubt success for this unit exists, but its proven the ability to randomly step up in games at key times (i.e. the entire UCLA game).

And of course, more than talking about what challenges the Cougars’ offense presents, the Sun Devils continued to preach the goal of taking care of business on their side of the ball.

“Just got to perform better,” Crump said. “It’s not what they do. It’s what we got to do.”