ARLINGTON, Texas — Todd Graham must have sent an alternate-universe body double to the podium following Arizona State’s 37-24 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday at Cowboys Stadium.
How else do you explain this assessment of what he had just witnessed?
“I thought our defense played good enough to win tonight,” he said. “That’s about what I have to say about that.”
Unfortunately for the Sun Devils (3-2), there was plenty more to say about their defensive effort.
The line couldn’t generate any pressure on Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees one week after Oklahoma battered Rees and the Irish offensive line. The tackling was poor. The secondary looked confused or simply overmatched by a passing attack that entered the game ranked 57th in the nation. And Notre Dame’s offense put up 30 points (the other seven came via a pick-six) in its highest-scoring game of the season.
All of this against a defense that returned eight starters and All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton. All of this against a unit whose coordinator is, in reality, Graham.
“We didn’t get a lot of pressure,” Graham admitted. “We had to go five- and six-man stunt to get pressure to the quarterback.”
Even then, ASU didn’t succeed. That surely impacted the secondary’s ability to do its job, but when it came time to identify the culprits in this big-stage breakdown, the Sun Devils couldn’t get that right, either. While Graham was busy laying the blame on offense, cornerback Osahon Irabor offered this assessment.
“We’ve got some young guys playing on defense,” Irabor said. “They’re talented but inexperienced, so we’ve definitely got to get them up to speed, because we’re making alignment errors and stuff like that that we went over before the game.
“You’re not seeing the veteran guys make those mistakes, because they’ve been there and done that before.”
From where we were sitting, there was no pressure from the Sutton-led defensive line and several blown coverages and missed opportunities from safety Alden Darby and cornerback Robert Nelson (not to mention Nelson’s special teams gaffes) .
Senior, senior and senior.
Darby and Nelson got beaten for big plays or big penalties, and there were two dropped interceptions, including one by Damarious Randall just before the half that likely would have gone the other way for six points.
But perhaps the most frustrating element of the defense’s performance was its ability to give Rees, who is a decidedly average quarterback even as a senior, enough completions to keep the Irish offense moving, many of them coming via fade routes.
Rees completed less than 50 percent of his passes (17 of 38) yet still managed 279 yards and three touchdowns.
“They definitely surprised us a little bit,” Irabor said. “We expected them to run their normal stuff, but we also understand we haven’t been playing the run too well, so we were expecting them to run for the field and stuff like that.
“They did some thing we weren’t prepared for, and we tried to adjust on the fly.”
The Sun Devils could not and have not been able to for most of the season. But the troubling takeaway from Saturday’s loss is that the problems are no longer confined to the run defense; they’re unit-wide. This defense is a mess.
That’s a discomforting reality as Pac-12 play begins in earnest next weekend.