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ASU Football: Analyzing the Sun Devil defense’s performance vs. UTSA

Bend, but don’t break.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Texas-San Antonio Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

After giving up 55 points to the Texas Tech Red Raiders in a week two shootout, the Arizona State Sun Devils conceded only 28 against the Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners on Friday night.

The secondary has come under public criticism as of late. Meanwhile, the program seems content with its performance, having assumed a much more conservative approach in 2016. When watching how the unit operated against UTSA, it’s clear that although there are still things that need to be worked on, the secondary—or the entire defense for that matter—isn’t as porous as folks believe it to be; depending on their reasoning, that is.

Let’s take a look at the defense’s performance against UTSA, and what the entire group is doing well, and what it struggled to do.

To view the full charting of ASU’s defense against UTSA, click this link, and at the bottom of the page, click the “Sheet 2” tab. We’ve provided quarter-by-quarter breakdowns below, followed by insight on what was called.

First Quarter

Second Quarter

Third Quarter

Fourth Quarter

Conservative Approach Continues

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham made it clear during the offseason that his defense would implement more zone-oriented play calls. Through three weeks, it’s held true. However, what wasn’t generally expected was the lack of heavy blitz looks.

Against UTSA, the Sun Devils only rushed four players on 41 of the 68 total snaps recorded on our chart. That means Arizona State isn’t blitzing 60% of the time. They’ve been dropping the back-seven players (linebackers, secondary) in coverage—mostly zone.

Communication

The Sun Devils defense has embraced a “bend, but don’t break” mentality. The group has given up a couple of big plays, but they’ve largely come as a result of miscommunication and blown coverages.

There’s plenty that goes into developing chemistry among defenders in the back seven, and the comprehension of responsibilities is vital. Between the two position groups, defensive backs and linebackers, there have been struggles for different reasons.

The linebackers have tended to be caught out of position dropping back into their zones. Likewise, zone-beater route combinations have given the defensive backs fits. Each happened a couple of times against UTSA.

Missed Tackles at the Wrong Time

The Sun Devils had, by our record, 22 missed tackles against the Roadrunners.

They whiffed on 10 tackles during either a third or fourth down play.

They have had issues over the past couple of seasons with wrapping up ball carriers, and against mobile and/or large quarterbacks like the ones they have faced each of the past two weeks (and the one they’ll be facing this week), it leads to big issues, particularly in the passing game.

The defensive backs can only guard their men for so long before they’re able to shake loose. Although, the secondary itself must continue to improve in this regard. Safeties Armand Perry and Laiu Moeakiola were relied upon to make score-saving tackles on multiple occasions after teammates were unable to bring a player down.

Front Four is good

Nose tackle Ami Latu’s presence was a huge reason Graham’s team was able to get back into the game. In fact, Latu (who I credited with a sack for when he bullied a UTSA guard back into the QB during the final possession), along with Tashon Smallwood and JoJo Wicker looked good, pushing the pocket back and making things uncomfortable for Sturm.

Personnel

Ball was exposed in coverage a few times while at SPUR, on a few occasions solely reading the quarterback’s eyes without feeling a receiver breaking into his zone. Moeakiola’s return was appreciated, however against pass-heavy teams like UTSA, it appears his skill set would be better suited at SPUR as opposed to Bandit.

Ball is a hybrid-linebacker, but his play style arguably resembles more that of a linebacker than a defensive back. His skill set is better suited in the box against the run and setting the edge. When UTSA attacked him in the passing game, he struggled. Tyler Whiley is an option that could be considered to play the position in passing situations more often. However, with the pending return of Salamo Fiso and eventual return of Christian Sam, this may not be an issue for much longer.