Devils Set for Another Defensive Battle
As ASU gets set for its meeting with #18 Utah on Saturday night in a clash between South division leaders, the defense looks to continue its recent on-field dominance. Following Arizona State’s 62-27 defeat to UCLA in late September, it looked as though the Sun Devil defense might be the team’s undoing in 2014. Fast forward just a few weeks later and that same unit is thriving as the driving force behind ASU’s current three game win streak as it heads into Saturday’s contest against Utah (6-1, 3-1) for Pac-12 South supremacy. While Arizona State (6-1, 4-1) yielded 34 points on the road to USC the following week, they’ve since responded by allowing a total of just 13 points in wins over Stanford and Washington. “We believe in what we do. We know that it works,” said Defensive Coordinator Steve Patterson recently after practice. “What most people have a tendency to do is just, ‘Oh boy, let’s just abort what we’re doing.’ Not us because we have extreme confidence in what we do and what we believe in, which is an attacking style defense and we knew eventually with those guys, the light would click on. It was just a matter of when.” For the Sun Devils, it was a combination of two things: slight personnel changes along the defensive line and developing both familiarity and confidence in their roles and schemes. After the team’s come from behind win against the Trojans, Patterson and Head Coach Todd Graham made adjustments to the defensive line, opting for a larger front four with the addition of Mo Latu while sliding Devil backer Antonio Longino back to his original position at WILL linebacker. The results came quickly and were overwhelmingly positive for Paterson's bunch. In games against Stanford and Washington, ASU allowed an average of just 8.5 points and 289.0 yards of offense. “We’ve always said, with newcomers and junior college players it takes 6-8 weeks during the season before you ever see the light come on and I think that’s what has happened,” said Patterson. “With playing five freshmen and three or four junior college players with (Demetrius) Cherry and Marcus (Hardison) and even Tony Longino, the light’s clicked. It’s a process. “I’ve said it over and over again, it just takes time and that’s what you’ve seen happen and I was about right on, about six weeks into the season and all of a sudden you see kids getting more comfortable with what we’re trying to do, their expectations, and even how they’re being coached.” For the season, Arizona State is sixth in total defense (405.9) in the Pac-12 and fifth in points allowed (25.3). Against Stanford and Washington, the Sun Devils held the opposition scoreless in the first half in consecutive games for the first time since 1993. “I know the kind of guys that we have on defense,” said linebacker Laiu Moeakiola. “We talk about letting up yards every game so that’s just something that, as a defense, we try to improve on day in and day out. And we have great leaders who have really embraced the test. Guys like Salamo (Fiso) and Marcus Hardison, they’ve done a great job of leading the way.” “I always believed in this team we have right now,” added cornerback Lloyd Carrington. “Just seeing how the young guys have come in and developed and how hard we work each day in practice. The main thing now is just to stay focused and stay consistent in each game. ***** Passing Game Grounded It was announced on Wednesday that Utah wide receiver Dres Anderson will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a torn ACL in the Utes’ 24-21 win over USC last Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Through seven games this season, the senior had totaled 22 receptions for 355 yards and four receiving touchdowns, both of which were tops on the team. Anderson currently ranks fifth in all-time receiving yards at Utah with 2,077 to go along with 134 career receptions and 17 receiving touchdowns. “I have friends on the Utah team and they speak very highly of him,” said Moeakiola. “Last year he made a couple plays against us. He’s a very fast guy and can change the game, so hearing he’s out is a shock.” Last season against Arizona State, Anderson caught four passes for 100 yards and a touchdown in a game where the Utes led by as many as 12 in the second half before falling to the Sun Devils 20-19 at home. “I didn’t know that Dres was going to be out but we still have to go out and play the game,” said Carrington. “They’ve got some talented guys. A few big guys that can go up and play the fade ball well and some guys that can threaten you vertically. “We’ve just got to play great technique at corner and dominate.” Without Anderson, the Utes will be limited in the passing game, even more so than they have been this year. Entering the week, Utah ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in passing offense, averaging just 192.1 yard per game in the air. Throughout his career, quarterback Travis Wilson has had durability issues but the junior has managed to remain upright in 2014, quietly becoming one of the league’s more efficient passers. For the year, Wilson has completed 81-143 pass attempts for 1,027 yards, and eight touchdowns. He is also one of just five quarterbacks in the nation yet to throw an interception this season. “He’s a fighter,” said Moeakiola. “He’s a fighter and he’s a competitor. He tries to do all that he can for the team. He’ll break tackles or whatever it takes to get his guys the ball. He does a very good job of running their offense.” With Anderson out, Wilson will have to rely on the playmaking abilities of fellow wide receivers Kenneth Scott and Clay Kaelin. Scott, a 6-3 junior, leads the Utes with 25 receptions. He’ll be flanked by special teams extraordinaire and senior wide receiver Kaelin Clay, whose 16 receptions for 152 yards rank third on the team. They’ll likely be opposed cornerbacks Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown and an Arizona State pass defense which ranks third in the Pac-12, limiting opponents to just 225.4 yards per game in the air. Aside from the recent improved play of the new look Arizona State defensive line, a major reason for the Sun Devil turnaround in the passing game has been the play of junior college transfer Kweishi Brown. After a slow start through the first few games of the season, Brown has settled into a groove as of late, totaling 25 tackles and a team-high six pass break-ups. “For a junior college player to play at the highest level in Division I-A football, it’s going to take 6-8 weeks,” said Patterson. “You’d prefer six weeks compared to eight but I think that’s what we’ve seen with Kweishi. Outside of one play in the UCLA game, Kweishi played an unbelievable game, but that one play everyone remembers. “But that’s why with his development, you can see the light coming on. After that, each week he’s gotten better and better and better. And as long as he continues to improve, we’re going to continue to improve defensively.” “Really, he’s just been focusing on one thing at a time in practice,” added Carrington. “A big thing for us corners is our technique. So just coming to practice each day and working on that, trying to master that, it’s showing in the games. He’s been a pretty good testament to what hard work can do.” ***** Ground & Pound...Book It Even before the loss of Anderson it was safe to assume Utah would look to establish the run game early and often against the Sun Devils on Saturday. Without their best playmaker on the perimeter, that is even more of a certainty. Luckily for the Utes, they boast one of, if not the very best, running back in the Pac-12 in junior college transfer Devontae Booker. In just his first season in the Pac-12, Booker is averaging 120.6 rushing yards per game, third best in the league, and enters Saturday’s contest with four consecutive 100 yard games, all against conference foes. “I don’t think we’ve faced anyone like him,” said Patterson. “I think he’s the best running back that I’ve seen to this point. He understands getting the ball going north and south and puts a lot of pressure on defenses. “He’s not an east-west runner. There’s not going to be any secret to where he’s headed. You’ve got to continue to gain tackle him and we’ve got to play sound, solid, tight, run-fit defense. If we do that and make them one-dimensional, that’ll allow us to pressure the quarterback.” Since becoming the lead running back for the Utes against Washington State on September 27th, the junior is averaging 166.25 yards per game, including a 229 yard performance in Utah’s 29-23 double-overtime win over Oregon State on the road. “He’s a great all-around back,” said Moeakiola. “They do a good job of getting him the ball and blocking for him and he does a good job of finding the holes. He’s just a great all-around back.” “He’s a talented back,” added Carrington. “That’s going to be one of our main goals, stopping the run, which it is every week. We’ve got to be physical and just win the physical battle up front.” Of course Booker isn’t Utah’s only threat in the run game as the quarterback Wilson also adds an additional weapon for the Utes. While he may not possess the same explosiveness as ASU’s Taylor Kelly, Wilson, at 6-7, has routinely demonstrated the ability to help Utah move the sticks with his feet. “He’s a huge threat running the ball,” said Moeakiola. “It’s just something about him, when he runs he covers so much ground. He takes one step and it’s already, like, a five yard gain. He’s a big guy, so our key is just surrounding all of it and covering the carriers and receivers.” For the year, Wilson has picked up 105 yards and one rushing touchdown on the ground, third-most on the team. “Since he’s a tall guy, he has long strides, so he can gain some yards on the ground,” said Carrington. “Our focus is just staying disciplined on defense within the read zone and option. We’ve just got to play assignment defense.” ***** Special Teams While Arizona State has made noticeable leaps in its special teams play over the last few weeks, Utah still sets the bar in the Pac-12. The Utes are tops in the nation in net punting (44.1) and fifth in punt return defense (2.50). For Utah, it starts with junior punter Tom Hackett who’s third nationally averaging 47.0 yards per punt. “Their punter, he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said Patterson. “He’s, like, an Australian rules football player. He just runs over here to the right and kicks the ball 70 yards to his left, 30 yards away from the returner. And then he’ll just line up for a traditional punt and kick the ball, so he’s definitely what makes them go in the punting game.” The Utes though are equally as impressive in the return game where Kaelin Clay ranks third nationally in punt return average (22.5) and is the only player in the country with three returned punts for a touchdown. Utah kicker Andy Phillips is second in the nation in field goal kicking, connecting on 14-16 kicks this season, including 9-11 attempts on field goals of 40 or more yards. Kickoff for Utah-Arizona State is scheduled for 8:00 PM PT on Saturday and the game will be broadcast on FOX SPORTS 1. Both teams enter the week on three game win streaks and will look to earn the inside track on the tightly contested Pac-12 South division race. ASU leads the all-time series against Utah 19-6 and have won the last nine meetings between the two teams. ASU is also 14-3 all-time against the Utes at Sun Devil Stadium and hasn’t lost Utah at home since 1976.
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