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ASU vs. Cal: Love it or hate it, the blitz is back

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Todd Graham’s trademark defensive scheme was on full display Saturday night, for better and for worse

California v Arizona State Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The pressure came early and often in Tempe Saturday night.

With another top-tier quarterback in Davis Webb visiting the desert this weekend, ASU head coach Todd Graham seemed determined to attack the pocket and disrupt any rhythm the California Golden Bears could establish in the passing game.

Coming into their matchup with Sonny Dyke’s unit, the Sun Devils were only rushing with five players an estimated 31 percent of the time, and had three sacks to show for it. Saturday night, however, 41 percent of ASU’s defensive play-calls brought the house on the Golden Bears, resulting in two sacks from junior Koron Crump, one from senior Edmond Boateng, and one tallied as a team sack.

Graham acknowledged the lack of pressure the defensive line had created before Saturday’s kickoff, and praised defensive coordinator Keith Patterson’s scheme following the game.

“Well, we hadn’t pressured or blitzed, so we blitzed a little bit more tonight,” he said. “Coach Patterson did a great job.”

For the majority of the night, ASU’s defense seemed to live and die by the rush, as many teams do.

On Cal’s first drive of the game, they converted two third-and-long plays for first downs when the Sun Devils brought six rushers, one of which came from a phenomenal toe-tapping catch along the sideline from California receiver Chad Hansen.

The rush proved more effective on the Bears next drive, forcing Cal quarterback Davis Webb to kneel down for a sack on first-and-10, then hurrying the senior quarterback into an incompletion on the ensuing play.

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The battle between Patterson and the experienced offensive line of California continued like this for the rest of the game, with the Sun Devils exchanging completions to put extreme pressure on Webb and close the gaps in the Golden Bears’ run game.

This did work to a certain extent, yet it also proved to completely expose the middle of the field at times, as was evident on Cal running back Tre Watson’s 74-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The play started out as a simple bubble screen on the right side, yet nearly every single one of ASU’s linebackers and defensive linemen were after Webb, leaving the rest of the turf wide open.

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Graham understands the risk of employing such a tenacious pass rushing scheme, yet he was confident in his unit’s ability to execute.

“I challenged the defensive line tonight,” he said. “I challenged them at halftime. I said we need to get a four-man pass rush and we did.”

The fifth-year head coach also didn’t shy away from complimenting his line’s effort after the game.

“I thought Crump, I though JoJo (Wicker), thought Tashon (Smallwood), thought that group really brought it,’ Graham said. “The Latu brothers (A.J. and Ami) played really hard.”

Crump seemed to be the standout performer of this group, as he constantly challenged the UC Berkley offensive line, and eventually broke through for two sacks.

His best play of the night, however, came late in the second quarter on a California first-and-10. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound linebacker broke through into the backfield to bring down Webb and force a fumble.

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Expect Coach Graham to continue to pressure opposing quarterbacks going forward, as it has been a staple of his defensive scheme since his days in Tulsa, and should prove to be a key component of the Sun Devils success, or struggles, moving forward.