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ASU Football: How the Sun Devils’ best defensive position unit broke down in loss to Eastern Michigan

ASU is now exploitable

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Arizona State Patrick Breen-USA TODAY Sports

Just last year, Arizona State led the Pac-12 in total defense. In terms of rushing defense, only one team (UCLA) allowed fewer yards per-game on the ground than ASU’s 132.8.

With four returning starters, and a handful of the same rotation players, the Sun Devils allowed 334 yards rushing, and 487 yards total, in a 30-21 home loss to Eastern Michigan Saturday night. Against Oklahoma State last week, they allowed 197 yards on the ground, but a couple clutch first-half stops let them off the hook compared to the slow offense.

“Obviously, it’s a very disappointing loss from the way we played last week,” coach Herm Edwards said. “And basically, it all came down to one thing: running the football.”

Robert Rodriguez’s defensive line, arguably the strongest unit on the team, went dark, and no rotation could stop EMU running back Samson Evans. Omar Norman-Lott went down with an injury early, and the shifting started there. Ten different defensive linemen took snaps in the loss.

After Eagles starting quarterback Taylor Powell exited with an injury, the EMU offense ran through running back Samson Evans, who recorded 260 of the 334 rushing yards.

“They found a crease in the defense,” Edwards said. “You’ve got to have gap integrity when you play on defense. You’ve got to stay level if it gets out of whack one way or the other. He did a good job of being patient. The big lineman did a nice job with him and he just found little seams and just kept going. He’s a big back, he didn’t go down, you’ve got to hit him low. He bounced off some tackles, he did a great job running the football.”

The defensive stat sheet is sometimes hard to read, and tackles can mean many things, but it is clear Kyle Soelle and the defensive backs were left to clean up the mess. Returning starters Soelle (18), Timarcus Davis (11) and Merlin Robertson (7) lead the team in combined tackles, with run-fillers Chris Edmonds and Khoury Bethley each recording 6.

The defensive line is not at full strength, but it was widely regarded in the preseason as the deepest position unit on the team, both with returners and transfers. Defensive end Michael Matus is out for the year with a torn ACL, and Norman-Lott suffered an injury Saturday.

The depth got tested, and it did not live up to the hype.

If there’s a silver lining, it is the improved pass-rush. Defensive end Anthonie Cooper and Robertson recorded the first Sun Devil sacks of the season, and there was pressure on most drop backs. But the Eagles only threw the ball 22 times. They ran it 51 times.

It is tough to think that Edwards and company did not see the run-game coming.

“Yeah, there was there was some things, but here again, you clean those up during the course of the week,” Edwards said. “But they just physically dominated us on the offensive line. They knocked us off the ball and they ran for a lot (of yards).”

The line looked deflated all game long, and there is no time for a reset. Utah rushed for 208 yards against ASU last year. They currently lead the Pac-12 with 216.7 rushing yards per-game.

The tape is out there, Utah will know what to do.