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ASU Football: Analyzing the Sun Devils’ performance vs. California

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A commitment to the run, a potential star in the front four, and varied play-calling helped ASU to a thrilling 51-41 win over California.

California v Arizona State Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

It certainly didn’t look pretty. Not at first, at least.

When the California Golden Bears jumped out to a 17-3 lead in the second quarter against the Arizona State Sun Devils, things were tense in Tempe.

Against a high-powered offense that had just come off a win over a talented Texas team, it didn’t seem likely ASU would dig itself out of a hole like the ones it’s found itself in all too often. It felt like this belief was certain when Cal walked the ball back into the end zone to retake a 14-point lead ahead of halftime.

Then everything seemed to change.

The Sun Devils emerged from the break, and suddenly looked like a well-oiled machine. They stormed back to post a whopping 31 points in the final quarter to ensure a 51-41 win against one the nation’s most fearsome offensive units.

But what happened? How is it ASU was able to come back? And not just come back, but do so with emphasis?

Let’s take a look.

We have charted the performances of the ASU offense and defense against Cal. You can click on this link to see both. To view the defense’s charting, simply click the “Sheet 4” tab at the bottom of the page down the left-hand side of the screen. We have provided screen grabs at the end of this post for those interested.

The defense stepped up

The defense was much more sound as a unit against Cal, collectively only whiffing on 10 tackles after missing out on 22 against UTSA. Only one missed tackle came during a third-down play, and it occurred on California’s final series of the game.

Linebacker Koron Crump had his way with the Golden Bears. He finished with two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a couple of quarterback pressures.

Linebacker Salamo Fiso and defensive back Laiu Moeakiola came through with two game-altering interceptions. It was Fiso’s debut, and the lengthiest showing for Moeakiola this season. Having two of the team’s most important communicators paid dividends, especially in the second half.

An actually special special team’s unit

Cal started just two of its 14 possessions outside of its own 25-yard line: one following an interception, and the other at the end of the game.

Each of punter Matt Haack’s three kicks and quarterback Manny Wilkins’ two kicks landed inside of Cal’s own 20-yard line. Kicker Zane Gonzalez booted all but three of his kickoffs out of the end zone for touchbacks.

To cap it off, linebacker DJ Calhoun returned an onside kick 42 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.

In regards to play-calling

Offensively

Some fans are critical of offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s offense resembling that of former ASU offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. This is presumably because of the amount of plays in which the ball travels horizontally as opposed to vertically. Quarterback Manny Wilkins threw six total passes during which the ball traveled at least 20 yards in the air, tossing three such passes in each half.

The Sun Devils offense lined up in at least 27 different formations. In the first half, ASU utilized at least 17 different sets. The incorporation of multiple looks kept the Golden Bears defense unbalanced, particularly later in the game, even when the Sun Devils’ intent was clear—run the football.

The most reoccurring formation was one which resembles a Shotgun Spread Y Flex look that features an 11 personnel grouping with a tight end flexed into a slot alignment, three receivers, and a single running back alongside the quarterback. It’s been a popular formation for the Sun Devils in recent seasons, too.

With the Golden Bears defense conceding the middle of the field, Lindsey dialed up five designed quarterback draws. Each resulted in a positive gain. He wasn’t afraid to make use of Wilkins’ running ability, at one point calling 14 run-pass option plays over the course of a 16-play stretch.

Defensively

ASU attacked Cal quarterback Davis Webb in the first half. We determine a blitz to be the sending of more than the number of down linemen at the initial snap. In accordance to this definition, the Sun Devils blitzed five or more players on 16 of 55 plays in the first half, good for a blitz rate of 29 percent. This drastically changed in the second half, as they only blitzed on four of 39 snaps (10 percent).

A majority of the Sun Devils’ first half defensive plays involved mostly man-to-man coverages (we determine the difference between man according to how the cornerbacks guard receivers—often they position themselves to watch the quarterback’s eyes in zone, and will turn and run with receiver in man—and the linebackers—will often drop in coverage and move with quarterback’s eyes in zone or track player across entire field if in man).

By our charting, the ASU defense played in zone on 20 of the unit’s 39 snaps (51 percent) in the second half. In comparison, the group appeared to play in zone on just 16 of 55 plays (29 percent) during the first two quarters. The incorporation of zone plays seemed to confuse Webb later in the game, as he tossed two interceptions on plays ASU was in zone defense.

What I noticed

The offensive game script was noticeably different from that of both the UTSA and Texas Tech victories for ASU.

While Wilkins was able to get in rhythm early a couple of weeks ago, he struggled in similar fashion of his UTSA performance against Cal. This time, however, it took the entire first half for him to really get comfortable, as he finished the first half just 5 of 10 for 62 yards with an interception. This was due in part because of constant harassment he faced while in the pocket.

Wilkins scrambled (intended to run on a designed pass) three times during the game, with all three instances occurring in the first quarter. Two of those plays went for positive yardage, however the other ended with a sack. Quarterbacks, particularly young ones, tend to do this when they’re not comfortable in or have time in the pocket.

The redshirt sophomore didn’t throw a single pass at or behind the line of scrimmage in the first half; he threw seven such attempts in the second half, with each going for a positive gain. He went on to finish 21 of 30 for 290 yards, including a touchdown to go along with 72 rushing yards and three scores on the ground.

Of worthy note

Receiver Jalen Harvey was terrific. His first four receptions of the game resulted in first downs, with two occurring with the Sun Devil offense facing a third-down situation.

Defensively, Crump’s ability to consistently pressure the quarterback enabled the secondary to reap the benefits beyond the interceptions. Pressure late in the contest led to ill-time and poor throws from Webb, whose mechanics faltered.

Charting the performance

Offense

First Quarter

Second Quarter

Third Quarter

Fourth Quarter

Defense

First Quarter

Second Quarter

Third Quarter

Fourth Quarter