Arizona State Sun Devils coach Todd Graham often refers to his program’s offensive style as “run, play action pass.” So when the first half of that duo isn’t working, things can get out of hand.
Take ASU’s trip to Seattle last season to play this week’s opponent, the No. 5 Washington Huskies.
Then ranked sixth in the country, Washington stuffed the Sun Devils early and often, sacking redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins six times on the night and holding ASU to just 15 yards rushing yards on 27 carries.
As a result, ASU mustered just three points through the first three quarters, losing 44-18 for the team’s fifth consecutive loss.
Four of the seven Husky starters who were in the defensive front in last year’s game will be suited up Saturday, not including redshirt senior linebacker Azeem Victor, who missed the final four games of the season with a broken leg.
“There’s quite a bit of overlap there,” redshirt junior guard Sam Jones said. “They’re the best group we’ve seen so far this season, so we’re going to have to play our best game.”
The Washington front seven has sacked a quarterback 21 times this season, tied for fifth in the country in total sacks. The Huskies have smothered opposing ballcarriers, as well, as opponents average 2.3 yards per carry.
With the Huskies neutralizing the run game and generating big plays to keep teams in late down situations, a slow start from senior backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard could spell trouble.
But what makes Washington’s defense so effective is how well they talk on the field and decipher what the opposing offense is trying to do.
“They communicate,” offensive line coach Rob Sale said. “They know where the tight end is, they know where the back’s offset, they know the blocking scheme... They just sit down on the blocks, play the blocks and they’re just big, massive men in there.”
The problem for ASU is its best game this season has still gotten Wilkins and the running backs hit behind the line consistently. The Sun Devils average three yards per carry on the ground and have allowed 23 sacks, the fourth most in the country with a variety of combinations in front of Wilkins.
At practice Tuesday, the line from left to right was sophomore Cohl Cabral, Jones, senior A.J. McCollum, redshirt sophomore Steven Miller and redshirt sophomore Zach Robertson. Redshirt junior Quinn Bailey started the season at right tackle and saw time at guard, but is now on the second unit.
With so many different groupings, continuity can become an issue for lines, despite only six linemen receiving consistent playing time. Miller said when players move along the line, assignments can get lost in translation, creating confusion and missed assignments.
“Making sure everybody knows what’s going on and everybody is on the same page,” Miller said. “Sometimes you can get a little mixed up when you’re moving around, but as long as you’re communicating with other people, then you’re able to handle your business.”
But unlike what makes Washington so good, Sale said ASU’s issues stem from a physical, not mental responses.
“Communication is not the problem,” Sale said. “It’s getting them in the right spots to perform.”
Miller is currently the first-team right guard, but has played all over the line for the Sun Devils this season, and Sale pointed to his versatility as a bonus when piecing together his starting unit up front.
“That kid is a smart football player,” Sale said. “That sucker doesn’t have to get a rep all week at left tackle to go in there and know what to do every play, no matter what the play call is.”
But not everyone works like that. Some people, like Robertson, need to be comfortable in a position before trotting on the field Saturday.
“Zach’s not really a guy that needs to be moving around, he’s a guy who needs reps,” Sale said. “Can he go play left (tackle) functionally? Yes, he can. But does he play as at high a level as a spot he’s been there repping all week? That’s the kind of guy he is.”
As the coaching staff continues to adapt to its personnel, the line is progressing to where it needs to be, no matter which five will see the field.
“We’re getting there, we’re coming along,” Miller said. “There are things that you haven’t seen before that you see and communicate... It’s always been there, it’s just continuing to add on to what we had before.”