For ASU defense, Michigan State presents a new challenge

Sep 5, 2018, 6:35 PM
Arizona State defensive lineman Shannon Forman (97) celebrates with teammate Chase Lucas after retu...
Arizona State defensive lineman Shannon Forman (97) celebrates with teammate Chase Lucas after returning an interception for a touchdown against UTSA during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)
(AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State football defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales raised a small grievance — not with his team, but with reporters — on Wednesday when talking about the Sun Devils’ 49-7 win over UTSA on Saturday.

“The thing that concerns me: We outscored ’em 49-7. All you guys are wonderful and I love you all, but you write too many nice things about us,” he said. “So now all of a sudden they walk around and they think they’re this wonderful bunch. I think you have to have confidence, you have to believe in yourself. But when you get complacent, and everyone’s patting you on the shoulder, it’s real easy to think you’re a lot better than you are.

“We’re not very good yet.”

For this reason, No. 15 Michigan State presents a new litmus test for the Sun Devils, who on Saturday forced three turnovers and sacked the quarterback nine times — the same ASU defense that drew the skepticism of observers, some near and far. And while the Roadrunners aren’t exactly in the playoff picture, Gonzales said he believes by the end of the season, UTSA is “going to be a pretty good football team.”

But UTSA — which plays in Conference USA — is not the AP Top 25, Big 10 opponent that the Sun Devils have next on the docket; the one with 19 returning starters total on both sides of the ball.

If Gonzales believes the defense isn’t “very good yet,” he’s going to find out pretty soon whether they’re going to be.

And even in spite of his defense’s success in Week 1, there are things to improve on, specifically keeping emotions in check, maintaining focus late in the game and playing harder. Head coach Herm Edwards, too, is looking for improvement.

“Every week, you look for improvement. That’s college football,” Edwards said. “I think you improve the first two, three weeks. In the National Football League, you say it’s the first four games, you figure out who you are. … In college football, it’s probably two [games]. You know, second game going into your third game, you’re going to have a pretty good idea of maybe what you are.

“‘Cause you’re not getting any new players, last time I checked. You play with the guys you got.”

Edwards added it would be important for his team to stay healthy, particularly because there are areas where his team lacks experience.

Tactically, the first-year ASU defensive coordinator Gonzales said Michigan State wants to run the ball and shorten the game. “If you want to have any success, you can’t let them run the ball,” he cautioned. More generally speaking, he said ASU asks its players to do “exotic” things from time to time, referring specifically to defensive lineman Shannon Forman dropping back last week and nabbing an interception.

Mentally, Gonzales noted how important it will be to avoid complacency.

“It’s going to be communicated to them, to stay humble. Humility’s the best thing. When you have humility, usually you don’t get embarrassed. If we can stay that course, I think you’ll see a lot of improvement between week one and week two.

“Do I think we’re going to have nine sacks? No. Did I think we were going to have nine sacks on Saturday? No.”

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For ASU defense, Michigan State presents a new challenge