For the first three quarters of their season opener, the Arizona State Sun Devils played just 11 men on defense.
That’s the minimum.
Arizona weather in August is not exactly temperate and Thursday night was no exception. The thermometers read 101 degrees for kickoff at 7:30 p.m. against a Sun Belt Conference opponent, but that didn’t mean the defense was going to give anything but 100 percent effort.
Every player who started the game on defense played all 42 plays in the first half, showing signs of fatigue as the period went along. After 15 yards on New Mexico State’s first four possessions, ASU let up two 80-plus yard touchdown drives to allow the Aggies to cut into the lead going into the locker rooms.
“This is what we expect,” senior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said. “The starting 11 is expected to play all the snaps. It was really no surprise.”
Out of halftime, the ASU defense from the first quarter was back, forcing two punts and two turnovers, including an interception return for a touchdown by sophomore Kobe Williams.
Fatigue reared its head again in the fourth quarter, as NMSU starting quarterback Tyler Rogers orchestrated touchdowns on each of New Mexico State’s final two drives against Sun Devils’ starters to make the score a lot closer than the game appeared.
Arizona State’s first defensive substitution came only after senior linebacker Koron Crump needed medical assistance and was forced to sit out at least one play. He, too, used the minimum.
But that’s par for what the expectations were for the starters, according to Smallwood.
“He didn’t tell us ‘you guys are not coming out’ in the beginning of the game,” Smallwood said. “The coaches want the best players on the field and that’s what he did.”
Coach Todd Graham said on the Sun Devil Radio Network’s postgame show that the second unit did not play well enough in practice to warrant time on the field Thursday night, but he was not as blunt at his postgame press conference.
“We need to get guys ready,” Graham said. “We want to, but Koron Crump can play every play. We’re not going to sub those linebackers. We didn’t play any nickel either. We didn’t want to.”
He also cited how good of shape his players are in, comparing them to Will Sutton and referencing how Sutton played all but five plays in his Sun Devil career.
In fairness to Graham, the second-teamers let the Aggies go 85 yards down the field in just six plays to end the game on a last-second touchdown to redshirt senior Jaleel Scott.
But this game showed more than just the skill of the defensive group, it showed the stamina. And while one game does not a season make, it can tell a lot about the trust the coaching staff has in anyone not on the field for play one.