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There’s no defending this defense

The Arizona State Sun Devils finished up their 2011 regular season on
Friday night with a thud; a 47-38 loss to the Cal Golden Bears at Sun
Devil Stadium.

It was the Sun Devils fourth straight loss, and despite being bowl eligible
for the first time since 2007, they’re right where they were a year ago
through twelve games, 6 wins and 6 losses.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the Sun Devils hit the
skids. If good defense wins championships, then bad defense can derail
championships. What we saw over the last month from ASU certainly
falls into the category of bad defense.

Everyone knows the defense struggled, but nobody can diagnose why.

“We haven’t been playing with confidence defensely for the last month,”
head coach Dennis Erickson said. “I wish I could put my finger on it,
because I’ve really never experienced anything like it.”

Linebacker Colin Parker couldn’t solve the puzzle either following
Friday’s loss. “I’ve thought a lot about it and it seems like something
else it was something different,” he said. “I think it just comes back to
being disciplined and we had people out of place and missing tackles,
and not making plays when we needed to.”

The only person who spoke on the subject who did have a clear-cut
theory on why the defense struggled was senior defensive tackle Bo
Moos.

“I definitely think there was a lack of leadership on the defensive side of
the football this year,” Moos said. “I don’t know if it was that we didn’t
have people who were capable of leading, I just don’t know if there was
really someone who stepped up.”

Is that a shot at junior middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict? Nobody knows
if Burfict has played his last regular season game for the Sun Devils.
He’s still projected by prominent NFL Draft experts as a first round pick
despite what most considered a mediocre season at best.

In the preseason, there was a lot of talk about Burfict’s burgeoning
maturity and leadership skills. “He’s been a leader all winter and the
spring and this summer, he did a really good job of leading out there,”
Erickson said at the annual ASU Media Day in early August.

So where was any of that leadership in the regular season? In the final
home game of the year, Burfict was benched for the final 24 minutes
after committing another personal foul penalty. He watched, sort of,
from the sidelines. He never spoke to the media in a group setting all
season long. In fact he hasn’t since Media Day of his freshman season.
Leaders step up and face the music when things go wrong. Leaders
don’t cower behind the “I don’t like to talk to the media” excuse.

In Dennis Erickson’s tenure as head coach, with Craig Bray as his
coordinator, ASU had yielded 400 or more yards to opponents in back-
to-back games only twice. The Sun Devils’ last five opponents have all
gained more than 400 yards, and Oregon and Washington State both had
more than 500.

Opponents have scored 138 points during the current four-game losing
streak. That is the most points scored against ASU in any 4-game
stretch in the Erickson era.

Maybe Moos was more accurate a week ago in describing the problems
on defense by saying that the team “lost hunger” and thought “they had
arrived”. The statistics bear that out.

A key to ASU’s early-season success was their ability to force turnovers.
In their first eight games of 2011, the Sun Devils forced 25 turnovers (an
average of 3.1 per game). In the last four, they’ve forced four (one per
game)–and haven’t intercepted an opposing quarterback’s pass since
the third quarter of the Colorado game–a span of 148 throws.

Sacks have dropped off as well. In fact, nobody laid a finger on Cal
quarterback Zach Maynard on Friday night. Big plays for opponents have
increased–there’s been three touchdown passes of more than 70 yards
against the ASU defense during the skid.

You get my point. There’s no defending the ASU defense. The Sun
Devils clearly took their foot off of the gas pedal four weeks ago, and
have been coasting ever since. And because of that, they’ll watch UCLA
represent the South Division in the first-ever Pac-12 Championship
Game.