TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State placed heavy emphasis on improving its run defense during the offseason, anticipating early season tests against top-tier rushing teams Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame.
The Sun Devils met those challenges with varying degrees of success but may be facing an even greater challenge this week.
With No. 20 Washington coming to Tempe, ASU’s run defense gets its latest and perhaps toughest test in national rushing leader Bishop Sankey and the Huskies’ 15th-ranked rushing attack.
“We’ve played against some really good (running backs), but he would probably be right along those lines,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “He is the No. 1 person we have to stop. There is no question about it.”
Sankey leads the nation with 149.8 rushing yards per game and 899 yards total. He has topped 125 rushing yards in all but one game, and his nine rushing touchdowns leave him just one shy on the national lead, held by ASU’s Marion Grice and Ball State’s Jahwan Edwards. Last week, he ran for 167 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon, whose run defense ranks fourth in the Pac-12.
While Sankey is getting more attention this season, even nudging his way into the peripheral of the Heisman Trophy conversation, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian says the junior isn’t doing anything different.
“In reality, he’s just kind of picked up where he left off the second half of last season,” Sarkisian said. “If you look at his numbers the last six game of last year, he played phenomenal for us and obviously capped that off with a tremendous bowl game. He really just hasn’t skipped a beat.”
ASU has already faced its share of tough running backs, including Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney and USC’s duo of Tre Madden and Justin Davis. Here’s how those players and their teams stacked up against ASU’s run defense:
Wisconsin: 231 rushing yards; Gordon: 193 yards, two touchdowns.
Stanford: 240 rushing yards; Gaffney: 87 yards, two touchdowns.
“I might say he’s the best back we’ve gone up against,” ASU linebacker Chris Young said. “He’s got good speed, and obviously he runs hard. He’s a really good back, and we just have to come out and contain him.”
ASU did limit Notre Dame to 145 rushing yards and has mostly contained power runs, getting hurt more on the perimeter. Still, its run defense ranks ninth in the Pac-12 with 168.8 rushing yards surrendered per game.
Graham and defensive players believe the rushing challenges already faced should have them better prepared for Sankey, particularly on outside runs.
“We’ve got to set the edge on our outside linebackers and obviously contain him, force him inside and take care of business there,” Young said. “If we shut him down, that’s just one less thing we have to worry about what they do as an offense.”
Limiting Sankey, Graham said, will also required sound tackling, something ASU has struggled with a few times this season.
“He’s one of those guys that’s going to make you tackle him,” Graham said. “He’s not just going to get hit and go down. He’s a good inside runner, he’s a good outside runner, he’s a solid protector (and) he’s a great receiver out of the backfield.”
Sankey should get plenty of chances this week. Through half the season, he’s averaging 26.5 carries per game, the most in the nation, and showing no signs of slowing down.
“He’s just consistent,” Sarkisian said. “Day in and day out it’s the same approach by that guy. Whether it’s running the ball in the first quarter or the fourth quarter, it’s hard to tell the difference.” BALL STILL OUT
ASU had hoped to get freshman safety Marcus Ball cleared to play this week after a doctor’s appointment Monday. That didn’t happen, and Graham said Tuesday that Ball won’t be ready this weekend.
Ball was in position to start at free safety until he hurt his right shoulder Aug. 17. Graham has maintained Ball would play when he returned but pinpointed this week’s game as a point at which he might decide to redshirt Ball if he were not ready.
That doesn’t sound like the plan just yet. Graham said Ball could be ready in another week or two and gave no indication he has decided to use a redshirt on him. Graham also said he would like to try Ball at spur linebacker when he gets healthy. Damarious Randall has emerged at free safety, and spur remains a bit of a weak spot when Young plays will linebacker. EXTRA POINTS
— Nose tackle Davon Coleman worked with the first team defense during 11-on-11 drills during the portion of practice open to the media Tuesday. Jaxon Hood, who returned last week but did not start after missing two games due to a hamstring injury, worked with the second team. Graham mentioned before last Saturday’s game there could be a competition at the position, and Coleman had another strong game as the starter.
— Redshirt freshman safety Laiu Moeakiola got a look at spur linebacker Tuesday, Graham said. Moeakiola started ASU’s first four games at free safety but lost the job to Randall.