When Arizona State’s defense lines up against Texas Tech’s offense, it’ll feature a classic strength-on-strength, or at least a pride-on-pride matchup.
Spend five seconds around ASU and head coach Todd Graham, and you know how much pride he puts in the way his defense attacks and flies around the field. On the other side of the field, The Red Raiders and Kliff Kingsbury have made a living with an Air Raid offense.
And while ASU’s defense struggled a season ago, giving up the most passing yards in the Pac-12, the Texas Tech offense thrived. Led by dark horse-Heisman candidate Patrick Mahomes on offense, Texas Tech was second in the FBS in points, passing offense and total offense a season ago.
Well, Mahomes is back for another go around, and he picked up right where he left off in Tech’s season opener against Stephen F. Austin, dropping four touchdown passes and 483 yards in his team’s win. He was also pulled midway through the third quarter.
On the other hand, ASU’s defense did relatively well considering several key starters were not in action in its 31-point victory over NAU. ASU gave up more than a few big plays, though, which gave fans reason enough to keep the concerns around for another week.
But talking to the ASU defense all week, you’d think Tech’s offense doesn’t strike any fear into them at all, and that’s because they aren’t afraid of the challenge, starting with defensive coordinator Keith Patterson.
When asked if he was losing any sleep preparing for the Red Raiders, Patterson simply said, “No.”
“I kind of like playing teams like this to be honest with you,” Patterson said. “Our whole defense is designed to play spread, up-tempo offenses. There’s not much that’s going to keep me awake.”
That level of confidence has trickled down to all three levels of ASU’s offense.
Starting with the guys in the trenches, ASU expects to have senior defensive lineman Ami Latu back in action after he missed last weekend’s game. However, in his absence, redshirt sophomore Renell Wren played well, recording two tackles for loss.
“The biggest thing is guys coming in and there’s no different level of play,” junior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said. “(Wren) and (redshirt freshman) George (Lea) have been showing levels of improvement, and that’s going to do well for our front.”
Against Texas Tech, the Sun Devils will face a bevy of quick bubble screens and running back screens designed to relieve pressure on a young offensive line. With that in mind, Smallwood and the rest of ASU’s younger defensive front must stay sound in recognizing when to release and get out to the sidelines to cover those outlets.
“Effort is a big thing.” Smallwood said. “It’s going to be a game where we have to run sideline to sideline, so that’s what we’ve been working on all week, and that’s what we got to prepare ourselves for.”
Although the Texas Tech offensive line features three new starters, Patterson mentioned that it is the biggest line he has seen.
“They recruit the largest human beings they can find, and they just try to teach them to backup,” Patterson said.
When Texas Tech does get the ball out to its playmakers, the next line of the ASU defense, its linebacking corps, will be called upon first to make tackles in open space.
Graham said junior Christian Sam is doubtful for the game with his ankle injury, and no word has been said on redshirt senior Salamo Fiso.
That, in addition to ASU losing redshirt junior spur linebacker Marcus Ball for the first half (suspension stepping from his targeting penalty) leaves ASU quite thin in that group.
That being said, junior linebacker DJ Calhoun had a nice game against NAU racking up a team-high seven tackles. Calhoun said it was just a simple trait that got him zoned in for the season opener.
“Just playing comfortable,” he said. “It wasn’t like my freshman year where I was nervous and everything. I had the jitterbugs, but for some reason, they aren’t there anymore. It’s weird. I got to have a hit, like a lineman hit me or I hit a lineman just to get me going.”
Calhoun said the defense cannot hesitate when making a read against this quick-firing offense, and a part of slowing that down is going to come down to who lines up at the spur spot. In practice on Thursday, media saw redshirt senior Laiu Moeakiola back at spur, where he spent the last few seasons of his career.
Although the media only saw ASU go through one 11-on-11 session, ASU showed its nickel package. Regardless of where Moeakiola plays, he’ll be a welcome sight for the Sun Devils given Moeakiola’s role as a communicator on the field.
“I take great pride in (communicating),” he said. “It’s just a level of confidence kind of thing, having that edge on the football field, the mental part of the game and trying to understand what the offense is trying to accomplish. We got a lot of guys leading out there from a communication standpoint, but when I’m out there, I know that’s my job, and I just take great pride in it.”
If he lines up in the backend at bandit safety, he’ll help bolster a unit that gave up several long pass plays to NAU’s large wideouts. With Texas Tech returning two of its leading receivers in senior Devin Lauderdale and junior Ian Sadler, ASU’s secondary will have its hands full all night.
Following the tone Patterson set, redshirt sophomore Armand Perry is welcoming the challenge Texas Tech’s offense presents.
“Any DB wants this type of game,” Perry said. “It’s a big challenge for us in the secondary. There’s going to be a lot of opportunity to make some big plays out there on Saturday night.”
Perry registered six tackles and flew across the field regularly, and if Moeakiola plays at spur or ends up not playing at all, Perry is ready to take on more responsibility vocally.
“I just believe that true playmakers can make plays wherever they are on the field,” Perry said. “That’s what they needed me to do that week. Preparation is everything. I really take pride in preparing myself, so that on Saturday, I can just go out there any fly around.”
All things considered, confidence means little once the play starts. That’s when preparation and discipline takes over, and against Mahomes, ASU has quite the task in front of them.
ASU has been nothing but complimentary of the quarterback all week, Patterson going as far to say that he is a “Brett Favre-type” quarterback who plays football “like Magic Johnson played point guard.”
Graham added on, saying that Mahomes was “in the ballpark” with famously successful Air Raid quarterback Case Keenum.
A pass-happy offense versus an aggressive defense. If recent history means anything, it means that ASU will give up more than a few big plays to the Red Raiders, and if ASU is truly back to what a Todd Graham-coached defense aims to be, the Sun Devils should generate a high amount of pressure and turnovers.
But as always, we’ll see on Saturday. Every level of ASU’s defense must be in tune to slow done Texas Tech’s potent offense, and while that group will prove whether they can come Saturday, ASU’s confidence level going into the game is not in doubt.
“At the end of the day, they’re an Air Raid team,” Perry said. “This game is going to come down to the DBs, and I like that type of pressure. It could go good or it could go bad, but the way we’re preparing right now, I always prepare to win.”