Coming into Saturday night’s Pac-12 Conference opener with No. 24 Oregon, the Arizona State Sun Devils ranked last in the country in third down defense.
ASU had allowed 24 conversions on 44 attempts, good for a 54.5 percent clip.
But during week four, against the No. 2 ranked offense in college football, the Devils allowed their opponents to convert just one of 11 attempts during the key down.
It was a tremendous turnaround for the defensive unit — one that was missing senior linebacker Koron Crump, arguably the team’s most impactful player — and following the game, senior defensive end A.J. Latu admitted it had much to do with a change in mentality during the program’s practice sessions this week.
“That’s what we emphasize, trying to get off the field,” Latu said. “Man this whole week we just emphasized ‘get off the field, get off the field,’ we struggled with that in the first three games.”
Not only did the ten key defensive stops keep the electric Arizona State offense on the field, it kept the explosive Oregon unit off of it. Redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins admired the defense’s ability to stymie the Duck’s offense following the Devils’ victory Saturday night.
“That’s a very high-powered offense,” Wilkins said. “For the defense to have 27 plays going into halftime against a very good offensive team, that was the difference in the game, how well they executed.”
Arizona State dominated Oregon in the time-of-possession battle, as the ASU offense remained on the field for nearly twice as long as the Ducks unit did.
This disparity allowed the Devils to limit Oregon’s best playmaker in senior running back Royce Freeman. The tailback only managed 81 yards against an Arizona State defense that ranked 79th against the run coming into Saturday’s conference opener.
Graham noted following the victory that the Devils took a different approach to their third-down defense and praised his team’s adaptability under pressure.
“We came out here tonight and made a lot of adjustments,” Graham said. “You can see that we were very very different in third down what we did and I think that fits our guys. (Oregon was) 0-2 on fourth down. We ran 92 plays and they ran 65.”
A large portion of the Devils’ success in getting off the field was due to ASU’s ability to get pressure on sophomore Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who Arizona State was able to sack twice even without Crump.
Sun Devil defensive coordinator Phil Bennett admitted that the Sun Devils took a more cautious approach to bringing pressure against the Ducks.
“When you blitz, you better be calculated,” Bennett said. “Someone’s band is going to play and you better make damn sure it’s yours.”
Though the Ducks eventually managed 401 yards of total offense Saturday night, ASU’s defensive unit put together a performance that showed a glimpse of it moving in the right direction.
Bennett acknowledged his defense’s progress after the game and noted that the finished product on that side of the ball is still yet to come.
“You live and learn you know?” Bennett said. “ It’s like I said the other day in the meeting, It’s a journey.”