TEMPE, Ariz. — Todd Graham made it a point of emphasis in spring practice, fall camp and now each and every week this season: If ASU is going to be successful in 2013, it must stop the run.
Of course, as the Sun Devils have displayed thus far, that’s often easier said than done.
The defense has been challenged frequently and has not always met the challenge.
Entering this week, ASU ranks ninth in the Pac-12 and 76th in the country in rushing defense, allowing 168.8 yards per game.
Three times they’ve allowed better than 230 yards over four quarters, although those games were against powerful running teams Wisconsin, Stanford and USC on consecutive Saturdays, no less.
The Sun Devils have performed better in recent weeks. The defense held Colorado to 99 yards on the ground, the first time ASU held an opponent under the century marks since the season opener against Sacramento State.
The challenge this week against Washington is not so much opponent as it is opposing player.
“I really like (junior Bishop Sankey),” Graham said. “You can watch him play and tell this is a guy—how he does everything he does he does extremely well, and the effort that he gives he’s extremely tough. You can tell he’s a mentally tough person.”
Sankey is also the best person rushing the football. He leads the nation with 149.8 yards per game
“He is the number-one person that we have to stop. There is no question about it,” Graham said about Sankey who averages nearly six yards per carry. “He’s just one of those guys that is going to make you tackle him. He’s not going to just get hit and go down. He’s a good inside runner. He’s a good outside runner. He’s a very solid protector. He’s a great receiver out of the backfield.
He’s had big plays catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s had big plays on inside runs, outside runs. That is definitely first and foremost what we have to do is we have to control that. We cannot give up cheap, big plays in the run game. We got to stop the run, so he’s the number-one person we have to stop.”
Already this season, the Sun Devils have seen three players rush for more than 100 yards against them: Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (193) and USC’s Tre Maddon (128) and Justin Davis (122). The good news: ASU won both those games.
“We’re going to come to play. We’re going to come stop the run,” said sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood, who returned albeit on a limited basis against Colorado after missing the previous two games because of a hamstring injury.
Hood is expected to see more playing time this week.
“I’m happy to be back,” he said. “I’m fired up to be back, doing what I do best—my little short self does best, just taking on that double team. I’m excited. It’s always a great opportunity to play the nation’s leading rusher.”
Sankey is closing in on his second straight 1,000-yard season (899). His 1,439 yards a year ago were the third-most in school history.
“I think he’s the key to their whole thing,” Graham said. “He’s a really, really good player. He’s as good as we’ve faced. He’s as good as there is in this league, and that’s saying a lot because there’s a bunch of good ones.”