Defending Arizona

Arizona State rebounded from its loss to Oregon State with a commanding 52-31 win over Washington State last week in Tempe. The defense forced the Cougars into five turnovers on the afternoon, and pressured the quarterback with six sacks. What will the Sun Devils have up their sleeve for the Territorial Cup rivalry game this week?

Coming into the game against Washington State, head coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson threw a few new wrinkles into the defensive scheme to try and combat the Mike Leach “Air Raid” offensive attack.

Yet, once the Cougars went up 21-7, Graham said he scrapped everything and went back to what had been working for the Devils up to that week.

It worked. No. 13 Arizona State outscored Wazzu 45-10 the rest of the way, forcing five turnovers to run away with the win heading into rivalry week with No. 11 Arizona.

“When we do what we do, quarterbacks aren’t really comfortable in the pocket,” Patterson said. “There’s a lot of indecisiveness, hanging on to the ball just a little bit longer than what you normally do. We tried to (zone) defend the other day, and then went back to what we do. We have to keep reminding ourselves to stay aggressive, and when we did that, that’s when we started to create those turnovers. We started to create momentum and you could see how our offensive players feed off that.”

Added spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola: “It was just getting back to our assignments and doing what we are coached to do. Everybody went back to their responsibilities and we got the job done; now we move on to Arizona which is a huge game.”

It is a huge game, indeed. The Sun Devils have taken the last two duels in the desert against the Wildcats, winning 41-34 in 2012 and 58-21 last year, keeping the Territorial Cup in Tempe.

While the game is always coveted as a prime matchup, this year’s game has a bit more significance. For the first time since 1986, both teams are ranked inside the top 15. And this game has huge implications in the Pac-12 South race; with a win and a UCLA loss, ASU would advance to take on Oregon in the conference championship game.

For Patterson, who came just earlier this year to coach with Graham, he immediately understood what this game means to the community, fans, and alumni right when he accepted the job.

“They don’t have to say a whole lot, you can just tell the difference in the intensity in practice and meetings,” Patterson said. “From the day that I got here it was pretty evident that this game is rather important. That’s what everyone outside and inside the program talks about; you just walk around and can tell the importance of it. But it’s just like any rivalry where you can’t get caught up in the emotions and you have to stay focused, execute and do what you’re coached to do.”

Arizona has won three in a row, and comes into this matchup off an impressive 42-10 victory over Utah in Salt Lake City, though the victory came at a price. The Wildcats’ quarterback, Anu Solomon, went down with an ankle injury, and his status is in question for the game this Friday.

If Solomon can’t go, Jesse Scroggins will get the nod. Scroggins, a 6’3” 200 lbs. senior, took over for Solomon against Utah and threw for 64 yards on three completions, while running for 16 yards on four carries.

ASU corner Lloyd Carrington said that the defense will prepare the same way no matter which quarterback is starting. “Their style of offense doesn't really call for much change at that position,” he said.

With Scroggins taking the snaps, Arizona extended an 11-point lead to 32 over the remaining two quarters, though the main factor was the ‘Cats running game led by freshman running back Nick Wilson.

Wilson ran rampant, gashing the Utes for 218 yards and three touchdowns on just 20 carries. On the year, Wilson is fourth in the conference, averaging 108.5 yards per game. And as a team, Arizona also ranks fourth in total rushing offense, with 195.7 yards a game – no doubt a tough matchup for ASU, which ranks near the bottom of the Pac-12 in rushing defense.

“They are pretty physical running the football, and obviously I would say (they resemble) ourselves,” Patterson said. They use a lot of the same concepts as far as the run-pass options and reads.

“If you look at it, over the last six or seven weeks we have been pretty solid in stopping the run with the exception of the two big runs that we gave up at Oregon State. We build every game plan to stop the run; it’s no different than any other week. They are very effective at running the football, they put a major influence on it and that sets up their passing game.”

Similar to other teams that ASU has played up to this point in the season, Arizona generates plenty of offense by running package plays. These are run-pass options, which can have up to four separate plays all bundled into one, depending on the look the quarterback gets before and after the snap of the football.

Rich Rodriguez has had tremendous offensive success wherever he has gone running his style of scheme, with the running game typically being the biggest beneficiary.

While we’ve already broken down package plays a couple of times before this, let’s just take a peek at one of the staples in Rich Rod’s attack:

We can see Solomon lined up in the shotgun with Wilson to his right, and a 2x2 WR set. The defense is showing a single high safety look, with six men in the box. The interesting part about the read option game is that it singles out one defender to be left unblocked – hence the “reading” of that man. So realistically, Arizona’s line is tasked with blocking just five defenders, leaving the LE unblocked as you’ll see below.

At the snap, the offensive line run blocks, crashing to the left, and Solomon reads the left defensive end. Originally, the end takes a step in like he’s going to take the RB, but pulls off and stands tall to take Solomon if he keeps – which he does. On the back side of the play, the slot receiver runs a bubble-go, while the wide out runs a modified slant, where the intent is to “rub” the slot defender.

Solomon keeps, rolls out to his right with a defender in chase, and throws a back shoulder, comeback route to the original slot receiver, who makes an easy 15-yard grab in a one-on-one situation.

“It’s almost like offenses are playing with 12 people now,” Patterson said of the package plays. “You could have everything defended as far as the run goes and all of the sudden the quarterback is out there and he’s throwing the ball down the field. Fortunately it’s not the first time that we’ve seen that as we defended it in spring and fall camp.

“It’s about discipline, and when you don’t hang your hat on just being a zone defense, those seams aren’t necessarily there. You got people matched up and we are playing tight coverage most of the time so I think that helps us defend that type of offense.”

Rodriguez keeps his play calling extremely balanced – 467 passing attempts to 447 rushing attempts – which is another reason why the Wildcat unit has been so effective this season.

“I would put them in the top three (in balance); they do a good job of mixing it up,” Carrington said. “But we do a great job of preparing with Coach Graham and his staff and we will have a great game plan going in. It will come down to making plays when the opportunity comes.

“We just want to go down there, take care of business and come home with that cup.”

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