Arizona State defense showed signs of growth in Washington loss

Oct 24, 2023, 2:36 PM

Ro Torrence #9 of the Arizona State Sun Devils celebrates his interception against the Washington H...

Ro Torrence #9 of the Arizona State Sun Devils celebrates his interception against the Washington Huskies during the first quarter at Husky Stadium on October 21, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

TEMPE — The Arizona State Sun Devils defense made its presence felt against one of the most prolific offenses in the nation on Saturday night.

And head football coach Kenny Dillingham couldn’t be more proud.

“Our defense has been playing really, really, really, good football the entire season,” Dillingham said. “The only reason that we’re not statistically probably a top 15 defense is our offense struggled, special teams have put short fields and then (the defense) didn’t get takeaways early in the season.”

Coming into Saturday’s game with the Sun Devils, Washington was No. 3 in the nation in total offense (543.7 yards per game) and No. 1 in the country in yards per play (8.49).

But on Saturday in Seattle, the Sun Devils made Heisman Trophy hopeful Michael Penix Jr. look mortal, as they held the southpaw quarterback to 275 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. They also forced two fumbles — two of Penix (one recovered) and another of Ja’Lynn Polk, which ASU recovered.

Coming into the game, Arizona State had only forced one turnover the entire season, a fumble against USC.

When all was said and done, despite the 15-7 loss in the rain at Husky Stadium, the defense surrendered a pair of field goals and just 288 yards of total offense.

“That’s always the challenge is when you have success, there’s two sides of adversity and the fun part is our football team is facing both sides of that adversity in the same week,” Dillingham said. “We have one side the ball (the offense) that failed and it’s facing that adversity. … Another side of the ball (the defense) that had extreme success. It’s facing the adversity of people telling them they’re good.”

The Evergreen State air attack

Pullman, Washington, and Seattle are separated by some 280 miles of Pacific Northwest territory. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have significant commonalities.

Washington State and Washington both attack football through the passing game prolifically. However, they go about it in very different ways.

“Washington is a vertical passing game. Throws the ball down the field a lot. Washington State does some of that but if you watched their last game versus Oregon, it was screen, screen, screen, screen, screen, screen, shot,” Dillingham said. “But in terms of open sets, they don’t get into as many formations … you’ll see them checking to some good plays. You’ll see (Washington State quarterback Cameron) Ward change to a play, it looks like at the line of scrimmage sometimes.

“So they’re more trying to get into good looks or certain defensive structures. Whereas Washington shifts and motions to create the confusion. … So a little bit different way to attack both trying to throw the football just in different philosophies.”

The Huskies lead the Pac-12 in total passing yards (2,823) and passing yards per game (403.3) while the Cougars are second in the conference in both categories, 2,465 and 352.1, respectively.

Penix’s exploits of UW this season have been well-documented. For WSU, the junior Ward has thrown for 2,217 yards, 15 touchdowns and three interceptions in 2023.

Back to the ground

The Sun Devils’ offense found success running the ball on Saturday against Washington.

That comes in no small thanks to the return of DeCarlos Brooks, who ran for 63 yards on 10 carries.

Cam Skattebo put in his usual, productive effort with 11 carries for 51 yards and Arizona State’s lone touchdown.

“Keeping (Cam Skattebo) fresh with DeCarlos (Brooks) and having that back-and-forth, both being similar backs, but just a little bit different in their run style — very, very minor — but just a little bit different is a good balance for us and you can see that. You can see the freshness in both those guys,” Dillingham said.

ASU had been averaging 93.7 yards per game on the ground this season.

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