TEMPE, Ariz. – Lost amid the talk of an offense struggling to find its rhythm is an Arizona State defense that, while at times has dominated according to head coach Todd Graham, has its own issues.
Namely, tackling and stopping the run.
The two go hand-in-hand.
Among the 127 FBS teams in 2015, the Sun Devils rank 106th in rush defense, allowing just over 215 yards per game. It’s the worst mark in the Pac-12, and it’s not even close.
California, which ranks 11th, gives up 188.3 yards per game.
Those are just numbers, however; and ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson doesn’t pay attention to stats, at least not run stats.
“Because any time you’re an attacking style defense there’s going to be runs that pop. We just got to do a nice job of getting it down when it does,” he said, referring to opposing ball carriers. “A lot of that’s very, I think, it’s very misleading. If you truly evaluate the run, look at the run against (Texas) A&M, they had 180 yards of rushing and how much of it—110, 120—was off quarterback scrambles. Now, if the ball is just running right through the heart of our defense that’s when you show signs of concern.”
Through the first three games, the Sun Devils have allowed 19 runs of 10 or more yards, 12 of which, though, came in the past two weeks when ASU (2-1) faced triple-option offense in Cal Poly and New Mexico.
Saturday’s opponent, No. 19 USC (2-1), is the polar opposite.
“I’m kind of curious to see versus spread-style offenses how we’ve progressed since the A&M game,” Patterson said. “I think it will be a great test.”
Leading the Trojans offense and its nearly 50-point per game average, is third-year quarterback Cody Kessler, who is in the top 3 nationally in completion percentage (78.7), passing touchdowns (10) and passing efficiency. He has not thrown an interception in his last 101 attempts.
“You can’t let him just set his feet,” Patterson said.
Containing Kessler means containing the Trojans rushing corps.
USC lists seven different running backs on its depth chart.
“These are very, very explosive running backs, probably the best—no doubt the best running backs that we’ll play I think all year long,” Graham said.
Senior Tre Madden leads the group, which collectively is averaging 6.4 yards per carry, the second-best mark in the conference.
Against Stanford, the Trojans rushed for 155 yards.
“You can’t allow them to setup the play-action pass by establishing the run, so we have to stop the run,” Patterson said. “Obviously, we got to be able to control those backs, be great tacklers, physical and dominate the line of scrimmage.”
The Sun Devils, winners of two straight and three of the last four meetings, believe they’re up for the challenge.
“Guys are confident to go out and showcase what we can do,” senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington said. “We’re all excited. We’re ready to go out and just to prove to everyone that we’re top tier talent, as well. The main thing is just executing, executing on each and every down and just coming out victorious.”
Added Patterson, “As long as we continue to improve each and every week we’re going to be fine.”
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