TEMPE, Ariz. — Lost amid the quarterback chatter of the week was how well Arizona State played on defense and special teams against then-No. 23 Stanford.
In winning 26-10 last Saturday, the Sun Devils limited the Cardinal to an opponent-season low 288 yards of total offense and 14 first downs. Special teams, meanwhile, allowed just 81 return yards — 95 on kickoffs and -14 on punts — in its second-best performance of the year.
“It’s a process, like everything else,” said Keith Patterson, who is in charge of both units as defensive coordinator and defensive special teams coach in his first season at ASU.
On defense, some growing pains were expected, especially given the nine new starters.
Special teams, however, has been troublesome for a few seasons now and continued to be a source of concern early this year.
That changed when Patterson said he made changes during the Sun Devils’ bye week in both personnel and scheme.
“Kids are a lot more comfortable in what we’re trying to do now,” he said. “I think they started to understand the importance of how special teams can affect a game.”
Against Stanford, ASU forced two turnovers, both on special teams, which led to points and ultimately a second straight win over a ranked opponent for the first time since 1997.
“It was a great teaching moment because now they understand,” said Patterson, pointing to the muffed punt by Ty Montgomery. “If we take that same focus and same concentration, same passion into special teams each and every week, we can create field position, we can score, set up scores, which is what we did the other night.”
Changes also came defensively, though more so in personnel.
First, redshirt junior Demetrius Cherry started at defensive end, giving the Sun Devils a trio of 300-pound linemen to stop the Stanford rushing attack, which gained just 76 yards. It was only the second time in 31 games that the Cardinal had been held under 100 rushing yards in a game.
Second, redshirt junior Antonio Longino replaced true freshman D.J. Calhoun at weak side linebacker.
Longino led the team with eight tackles.
“You cannot replace experience,” said Patterson, before turning his attention to the younger guys. “Maybe we put too much on their plate too early. I don’t know. But we didn’t make those critical errors that we had made in games one through five. That really helped. It wasn’t near as disruptive. And again, it doesn’t mean those guys aren’t going to play. We just got to, maybe, take a little bit off their plate and set them up for success.”
Improved and feeling confident, ASU’s defense and special teams units look for similar success this week at Washington.
“That’s just the beginning,” said redshirt senior Damarious Randall, pointing to the Stanford game, in which he was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after accounting for seven solo tackles, a sack, a forced and recovered fumble and a pass breakup. “You can kind of look forward to us just building off that performance and just playing better and better each week.
“I just think we’ve got a different swagger about ourselves now.”