It’s no secret that Arizona State leads with its defense. The Sun Devils, led by second year head coach Herm Edwards, rank 13th in the nation in S&P+ rankings on the defensive side of the ball. And while, as Craig pointed out in his preview, the tortoise-level, grind-it-out pace of the offense contributes greatly to that ranking by limiting the opposing offense’s total possessions, the end result is that only one team has scored more than 17 points against Defensive Coordinator Danny Gonzales’s defense. And three teams have been held to exactly seven points. That doesn’t happen by accident; the Sun Devils must be doing something right on that side of the ball. We’ll take a look at some of the basic elements of Arizona State’s defense and what makes it unique, and we’ll briefly discuss what we might see from the Washington State offense as they game plan for the Sun Devils.
Let’s start with Arizona State’s basic defensive alignment. They run a 3-3-5 that may remind you of the defense that Iowa State ran last season. However, where Iowa State ran a scheme that implemented three true safeties, the ASU defense has two rovers and a hyper-aggressive downhill safety that they refer to as their Tillman safety.
Against a balanced offensive formation—WSU’s Ace formation, for example—he will patrol the middle of the field, creeping down to nearly linebacker level. If he reads run, he comes flying, looking to find a crease to the running back, and trying to take advantage of blocking schemes that rarely account for safeties. Against Early or Late, the Tillman is likely to play over the inside receiver, closer to what a typical strong or free safety would play.
Because of that difference in alignment, I’d anticipate seeing a touch more 3x1 sets than is typical. I’m also interested in seeing how ASU reacts to motion with that middle safety, specifically motioning from Ace into Late or Early. Getting that defender moving pre-snap could open up the middle of the field for the Mesh and Y-Cross.
The linebacker level is interesting as well, in that they will align all over the place, including at various levels. The linebackers (or Tillman safety playing at that level, as he occasionally does) will sometimes play as deep as six or seven yards off the line of scrimmage. Other times they will be split wide, in a 50 or even 60 alignment, leaving what looks like a gaping hole in the middle of the defense. They can get away with this because of the aggressiveness of the Tillman safety coming down to fill the box with an extra run defender. That aggressiveness does lead the ASU defense to being a little susceptible to play action. Colorado did pretty well with using the run fake to manipulate the Arizona State defense. In the clip below, the Tillman safety is in the middle of the field, and comes down hard when Steven Montez shows the run action. He has to bail hard to get back anywhere near his zone responsibility.
Unfortunately, the WSU version of the Air Raid isn’t particularly play-action heavy. About the most you’ll see is the token fake when they run Randy/Larry. While I do think we will see a fairly heavy dose of the outside screen game to neutralize and take advantage of the ASU defense’s aggressive tendencies, I think it’s more likely we’ll see a couple doses of the shovel pass, which is a play that has been largely absent for the last calendar year or so.
Despite nominally being a 3-3-5 defense, ASU tends to play with at least four defenders at the line of scrimmage. They will do a fair amount of stunting, their favorite seeming to be a Texas twist where the end crashes down inside and the tackle loops outside (Tackle and End make an X).
The impetus put on the Sun Devil defensive line seems to be to control their gaps and keep the offensive linemen off of their second level defenders. The ASU linebackers (and safeties) flow hard to the run, so the defensive line absorbing blockers allows the second level to roam free and make the majority of the tackles. If the WSU offensive line can win one on one matchups at the line, that will allow them to reach up to the linebacker level and disrupt some of that flow, potentially giving Max Borghi a crease to run through. Determining leverage for run checks will be a little tricky. Do you count the Tillman safety if he’s eight yards off the line? Six? Do you count the weakside linebacker if he’s in a 50? It will be an interesting chess match between Gonzales and Leach.
The Air Raid offense wants to operate in space. The overriding concept is to get the ball to its athletes with room to make a move and get downfield. There is space to be had in the middle of the Arizona State defense. In the eyes of this particular offensive-minded coach, I think Arizona State’s defense isn’t quite as good as it looks on paper and in the stat sheet. While the ASU offense is going to try and limit possessions, they may not be able to do that if they are in chase mode. In a perfect world, Washington State wins the ball, takes the opening kickoff and puts the ball in the end zone. Putting that pressure on the ASU offense to perform may speed them up, giving the Air Raid more chances to do its thing. This was essentially the format Colorado followed; they went up 14-0 pretty quickly, forcing ASU out of its offensive comfort zone somewhat. The Sun Devils were able to respond, but not before the defense gave up an uncharacteristically high number of points.
But that’s the blueprint for success in the desert, by my estimation. Get up early, force ASU’s offense into catch-up mode, and then outrace them to the finish line.