Heading into Saturday’s Pac-12 opener against the USC Trojans at Sun Devil Stadium, the Arizona State Sun Devils rank dead last in the conference in rushing defense.
Opponents have averaged 215 yards per game against the ASU defense — 27 yards more than what the 11th-ranked conference team, California, gives up per contest.
You might expect such a statistic to put head coach Todd Graham over the edge; that’s obviously not where he wants his team to be. But you’d be wrong. Graham points out the offensive styles of ASU’s non-conference opponents has skewed the statistics.
“A lot of it has to do with the fact that we played two triple-option teams,” Graham told Doug and Wolf Friday morning on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. “I don’t look at a lot of the statistics, but I can tell you I think we’re the best we’ve been defensively, we’ll see how that plays out in conference play.
“Our defense and our system is designed to stop the conference offenses — the spread no-huddle. We haven’t run our nickel defense in two weeks. It’s third down and six, it’s 100 percent run, when it’s 100 percent pass in our league.”
Graham’s points are certainly valid. Two weeks ago, the Sun Devils faced an old-school triple-option team in Cal Poly that ran the ball on 90 percent (72-of-80) of its offensive plays. The Mustangs rolled up 284 yards on the ground, but lost 35-21.
The next week, New Mexico brought their version of the triple-option to Sun Devil Stadium, and while they mixed it up more than Cal Poly did, the Lobos still ran on 61.8 percent of their offensive snaps, amassing 184 yards.
“We gave up a lot of rushing yards against a triple-option team in Week 2 and I think that’s skewed that a little bit,” Graham said. “But I’ve got a lot of confidence. I feel like at this point, where we’re playing defensively — I feel good about where we’re at.”
Conversely, ASU ranks first in the Pac-12 in passing offense through the non-conference portion of their schedule. That will even out after Week 4 as they face the balanced offensive attack of USC and quarterback Cody Kessler, who comes into the game completing a blistering 78.7 percent of his passes.
“He’s got the best receiving corps we’ll play all year long,” Graham said. “They’ve got four running backs that will be as good as any running backs we’ll play all year. Skill-wise, he’s got some pretty tremendous, explosive athletes around him.”
The Trojans (2-1) come into the contest ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in total offense, averaging over 557 yards. Kessler’s 202.1 passer efficiency rating is third in the nation and the senior has 10 touchdown passes without throwing an interception. As Graham said, USC has a stable of running backs (when don’t they?) featuring Tre Madden, Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis. That trio has combined for 514 yards and eight touchdowns and is averaging 8.4 yards per carry.
“The key to stopping USC is not giving up the big play. That’s a lot easier said than done. But I look for our guys to play our best game. They know what it takes to play in this game, they know they have to be fundamentally sound and they know we’ve got to play great defense,” Graham said.
The pivotal early-season Pac-12 affair gets underway Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. and can be heard on ESPN Phoenix 620 AM.
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