TEMPE, Ariz. — In a conference that has come to be known for high-powered offenses and dynamic quarterbacks, stellar defense often gets overlooked. But in the Pac-12, it quietly pays off.
Two of the conference’s top defensive teams clash Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium in the Pac-12 championship game, with No. 11 Arizona State looking to unseat reigning conference champion No. 7 Stanford.
“We’re two programs, I think I can say we’re like-minded in how we’re trying to do things,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “Two really good defensive football teams.”
The last meeting between ASU and Stanford, in Palo Alto on Sept. 21, was also billed as a defensive showdown. The teams had the Pac-12’s top two defenses in 2012 and had been the nation’s two best in sacks and tackles for loss.
The narrative dissipated quickly as Stanford took a 29-0 lead into halftime. The ASU offense couldn’t get going against Stanford’s defense, but most disheartening was that the defense gave up what is still its most points allowed in a game this season.
The ASU defense was not as stout as it — and outside observers — believed it was, and Stanford overpowered it with an efficient power run game (240 yards) and precision passing. Meanwhile, the Cardinal defense swarmed Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly and shut down ASU’s run game more than any team this season, allowing just 50 yards on the ground.
“Obviously, at the time, that was a humbling experience,” Graham said. “I think we learned a lot from that game and learned a lot from every game we’ve been in.”
In particular, ASU began to learn how its defense needed to improve. Though the Sun Devils bounced back nicely from the loss with a dominant win over USC the following week, the defense still gave up 41 points. It then gave up 37 points in a loss to Notre Dame.
But then, finally, something clicked. ASU has since given up 30 or more points in a game just once (to UCLA) and has held opponents to an average of 21.1 points per game.
“There were times in the season where I thought, ‘Man, I’m doing too much,’ because there were so many errors (on defense),” Graham said. “But we’ve kind of just stuck with it and just improved, and we have less deficiencies.”
Graham said the defense was averaging about 15 critical errors — errors that can lead to big plays or one-play touchdowns — per game early in the season but is now down to about three or four per game.
Key to the defensive improvement has been the unit settling in and gaining experience. The defense opened the season with four new starters and has since subbed in three different new starters. The more recent changes have been significant, but the unit overall has simply begun to play better as one.
The additions of linebacker Salamo Fiso and nose tackle Davon Coleman to the starting lineup have been part of ASU’s turnaround in run defense. The Sun Devils gave up 182.8 rushing yards per game through their first five contests but have since allowed just 98.8 per game.
“We’re really taking pride in stopping the run, and our front seven really, really takes pride in stopping the run,” safety Alden Darby said. “Even the secondary, we like coming up and making tackles and big plays on the run. So the whole defense is just taking more pride in stopping the run.”
The third new starter since the Stanford game arrived when safety Damarious Randall became healthy enough to play. And since the loss to Stanford, ASU has 18 interceptions, giving it a conference-best 21.
The defensive front has come alive recently as well, but mostly, the defense has gelled as a group and become what most thought it could be entering this season after a strong 2012 performance.
“I’ll tell you what’s happened to us: I think that Will (Sutton) and Carl (Bradford) were playing at a really high level, and now you have Gannon (Conway), you have Davon (and) you have (Marcus) Hardison,” Graham said. “They’re all playing at a high level now, so everybody has improved.”
Saturday brings a big test of just how much improvement there has been. Stanford’s defense ranks second in the Pac-12 with 341.3 yards allowed per game, while ASU’s ranks third with 351.0 per game. Stanford owns the best run defense in the conference (and third-best in the nation), while ASU’s ranks fourth. The Sun Devils’ pass defense ranks third in the conference, while the Cardinal’s ranks eighth.
So perhaps Saturday will provide the defensive battle expected the first time these teams met. That is, at least, what Stanford coach David Shaw expects.
“They’ve got really good players on all three levels on defense,” Shaw said. “This is a new team, this is a new game.”
Saturday’s title game could be seen as confirming the formula for winning in the Pac-12. Oregon and Washington finished the season atop the conference rankings in total offense, but here stand Stanford and ASU, two of the Pac-12’s three best defensive teams (USC finished first in total defense).
Graham has stressed since his arrival that he wants to build his program on defense, and as ASU prepared to play Stanford in September he spoke of how he wants his team to be what Stanford already is — a big, physical defensive powerhouse.
“We pride ourselves on being (physical),” Graham said. “That’s what we want to be. That’s what I mean when I talk about a defensive mentality. You’ve got to be able to run the football, you’ve go to be able to stop the run, you’ve got to be able to tackle and block.”
Basically, all the things Stanford has made its name doing well. The Sun Devils also want to be, like the Cardinal, Pac-12 champions.
With a win Saturday, ASU could climb into Stanford’s tier. It may not be quite the defensive power Stanford is yet, but it would seem that if ASU has caught up in some regards — winning, most importantly — these teams will see more of each other in coming seasons.
“We’re on ground we’ve never been on,” Graham said. “We are the contender, they are the defending champion. You have to take it from them, and they’re no going to give it away. I can guarantee you that.”