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ASU pass defense clicking in Danny Gonzales’ first season

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

In years past, Arizona State and defense have been antonymous. That’s no longer the case.

Along with head coach Herm Edwards, Danny Gonzales was hired to be ASU’s defensive coordinator in December. Before Gonzales took the job, the Sun Devils were plagued with defensive woes, particularly in the secondary.

Just nine games into his tenure, Gonzales has already changed ASU’s defense for the better. A year removed from having the 11th-best pass defense in the Pac-12, Gonzales’ unit has already rocketed to fifth in the conference.

Most recently, ASU shut down Utah in the Sun Devils’ 38-20 win last Saturday. One of the Pac-12’s most dynamic quarterbacks, Utah’s Tyler Huntley, had no room throughout the game, and he exited the game in the third quarter due to a collarbone injury.

That was pivotal.

“That was a big turning point in the game,” Gonzales said. “Our guys were starting to feel it on the sidelines and all of a sudden we’re getting more aggressive.”

Backup Jason Shelley entered the game in Huntley’s replacement but wasn’t productive doing so. The two combined for 147 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.

Due to the quarterbacks’ struggles, ASU keyed in on Utah running back Zack Moss, who was relied upon heavily in the second half.

“As the game went on, his big runs weren’t as big anymore because he was tired of getting hit,” Gonzales said. “You could see our guys were feeding on blood; we got pressure.”

Moss finished the game with over 100 yards, but he only found the end zone once. That was far from enough to atone for the Utes’ woes behind center.

Now controlling its own destiny in the Pac-12 South race, ASU will need its defense to build off the recent success it’s had halting opposing quarterbacks. A three-game stretch to end the regular season begins when Arizona State hosts UCLA for senior day.

UCLA has struggled to find its leader behind center this year, alternating between Wilton Speight and Dorian Thompson-Robinson due to minor injuries and dismal play. UCLA has combined for just 1,886 passing yards this year, ahead of just California in the Pac-12.

Thompson-Robinson is more of a dual threat, while Speight is less quick and a more traditional pocket passer. This makes it difficult for ASU to prepare for just one of them.

“It’s hard to simulate these things in practice,” Gonzales said. “It’s different so you have to watch a bunch of tape.”

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly hasn’t announced a starter for this week, but Speight took first-team reps at Wednesday’s practice.

For some of the most important players on ASU’s defense, Saturday’s game will be their last at Sun Devil Stadium. This includes seniors Renell Wren, Jalen Harvey and DeMonte King.

Gonzales said the framework for this defense has been set by the seniors.

“If we can continue to play well, if we beat UCLA, then the next one becomes bigger, and that’s all because of them,” Gonzales said.

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