Listening to both Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards and defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales all season they’ve preached the same storyline about their defense.
ASU’s opening night defensive unit featured just three players that had taken Division I snaps entering the season.
The unit has been much improved throughout the season, and have gone through a fair amount of growing pains. Seeing the process turn into a strong performance against No. 16 Utah is just that much sweeter.
Freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson and freshman Aashari Crosswell each collected their first career interceptions. Redshirt freshman linebacker Tyler Johnson recorded seven tackles.
“I can’t say enough about our freshman guys,” Edwards said. “Aashari got an interception, finally.”
Crosswell’s interception was a fairly accurate representation of his freshman season at safety. He was beat by the receiver on the route, was spinning in circles, but ended up in the right spot to make the play. Crosswell then proceded to run the ball back 47 yards, setting up ASU’s second scoring drive.
“When the ball was in the air the sun was in my eyes and I couldn’t see nothing,” Crosswell said. “It was just a great play by me and it was great play by the people who was rushing for my first pick.”
Crosswell received some good-natured jeering from his teammates for his comments, but he mentioned before the press conference that it was his first time in the setting.
Johnson was also impressed by the work of his teammate.
“We got pressure because he (Huntley) started to scramble a little bit and got nervous then he just chucked it down field,” Johnson said. “I honestly didn’t even think Aashari would catch it.”
Crosswell was happy to make the play after dropping previous chances to intercept passes. The advice he received from senior quarterback Manny Wilkins was simple, enjoy the moment.
The defense held Utah to 20 total points and completely dominated the second half.
The third quarter defense was especially crucial. In their previous five games, ASU had allowed at least 14 points out of the break. They held the Utes to a field goal today.
It started with the big interception from Robertson. He’s been a force patrolling the middle of this field for ASU and was in the right position to make the big play. It was a crucial catalyst to the defense’s second half surge.
“We needed to play good in the third quarter,” Edwards said. “Our home crowd helped us and then we got going again. Our offense found its way to make a couple big plays and then you find yourself in the lead and it’s just a matter of managing the clock.”
The players knew they had to prove to themselves that they could execute out of the break, and they were able to.
“In the recent games we have had trouble in the third quarter,” Johnson said. “So coming out of halftime we need to stay warm and keep energy the fans helped us out a lot. We just kept pushing and pushing and the more turnovers we got and tackles for losses kept the energy up.”
Gonzales was proud of the effort from his young players, and sees that they’re beginning to make the plays they weren’t earlier in the season.
“We’re starting to mature,” Gonzales said. “Our younger kids are starting to play better, they’re starting to understand the concepts of what we’re trying to do. They’re playing hard and they’re playing physical.”
If ASU is going to capture the division title they will need to win out. While this seems unlikely, it is very much possible. And if the freshmen standouts continue to perform like they did against the Utes, the Sun Devils might be making an unexpected trip to the Bay Area at the end of November.