TEMPE, Ariz. — For a stretch this season, opposing coaches asked what challenges Arizona State presented almost always went immediately to defense, and rightfully so. The unit had been downright dominant.
The defense’s reputation, however, has taken a major hit with the Sun Devils mired in a three-game losing streak.
While ASU’s defense has been consistently aggressive, it has lapsed the past three weeks, falling victim to big plays and high-powered offenses.
“I think our temperament, our aggressiveness, our tempo, our effort — all those things through these last three games have been really good,” co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph said. “I think we just have to go back and eliminate the mistakes that we’ve had.”
The “mistakes” have been plentiful lately and led to opponent offensive yardage totals of 454 (Oregon), 486 (UCLA) and 424 (Oregon State). In the previous six games, ASU held all but two opponents under 300 yards and neither, Illinois or Missouri, came close to 400. The defense’s 272.7 yards per game average led the Pac-12 by a good margin.
More importantly, the opposition point totals have been 43, 43 and 36 — and Oregon’s 43 could have been much higher had the Ducks kept their foot on the accelerator in the second half.
ASU still ranks a respectable second in the Pac-12 in total defense, with 333.3 yards allowed per game. A scoring defense once holding opponents to 14.2 points per game has dropped from first to fifth (23.2 points per game).
Determining what mistakes have caused the defensive swoon is complicated, but players and coaches seem to feel they have them pinpointed. While the more difficult schedule and powerful offenses have been a factor, no one is letting that be an excuse.
“It’s definitely mental errors and a lack of focus on fundamental technique and kind of what got us here as a defense — fundamentals and playing together,” junior cornerback Osahon Irabor said. “We got away from playing together, as a unit. “
Added Randolph: “At this stage, we just have too many mental mistakes, too many missed assignments, too many missed alignments and things of that nature.”
All those elements have been evident over the last three games, but perhaps no more so than against Oregon State. The Beavers don’t have one of the Pac-12’s more-explosive offenses, but they burned the Sun Devils for touchdowns of 50, 53 and 49 yards. The defense had given up four scores of 20 or more yards the previous two games.
“We blew two coverages (against Oregon State),” coach Todd Graham said. “We’ve blown seven coverages all year and two in that game. You shouldn’t have those this time of year. That was just a miscommunication on both of them.”
The injury to defensive tackle Will Sutton can’t be minimized as a factor in the defensive regression.
Sutton returned from a bone bruise against Oregon State, and his impact was evident when he was on the field. But when he came off, things got a little shakier. Graham maintains that much of the defensive scheme is built around Sutton, so with him out players all over the field have had to adjust.
It was also clear Sutton’s return had a mental impact, providing confidence and stability to the unit essentially built around him.
“It gives a lot of guys a sense of calm having that big time player out there on the defensive line, pass rushing and just disrupting the back field,” Irabor said. “It helped us tremendously.
“As a corner, he’s definitely been my best friend this year, helping keep the pressure off me.”
The defense has stayed true to its aggressive, attacking identity all season. The unit is averaging 4.22 sacks and 9.11 tackles for loss per game, both of which rank second in the nation behind only Stanford.
“That’s us: Hybrid, attacking-style defense,” Randolph said. “That’s who we are. Our guys feed off that, they love it.”
The aggressive style does lead to occasional opportunities for an offense to exploit, but tradeoff is big plays in the other direction, such as when Oregon State quarterback Cody Vaz fumbled under pressure, leading to an ASU touchdown.
Randolph said the defense has circled back to the fundamentals this week, but expecting a defensive resurgence against high-powered USC this week will be a tall order.
“They are an extremely explosive team,” Randolph said. “We just have to get back — coaches included — to having a fine point focus on the details, the little things.”