After the Mustangs rolled off 58 rushing attempts in 62 offensive plays in its triple option Saturday, Arizona State’s depth will be tested this week as a number of players on the defensive side of the ball are banged up from the physical toll defending the option takes on a player’s body.
Starting sophomore safety Armand Perry , starting junior defensive tackle Viliami Latu, and junior running back De'Chavon Hayes suffered injuries and were held out of Monday’s practice, and many other Sun Devils are likely still recovering from minor twists and tweaks.
Throughout the contest, ASU contended with cut blocks from Cal Poly’s offensive linemen, and after the game, redshirt senior Devil backer Antonio Longino said the Mustangs used the tactic to compensate for their lack of ability to hang with opponents otherwise.
“They aren’t really that physical, that’s why they’re cut blocking,” Longino said. “They’re not that physical, but they do hurt your legs, I can tell you that.”
At Monday’s press conference, head coach Todd Graham expressed strong opinions about the legality of cut blocks in football, saying it’s an issue officials need to take a deeper look at if they’re truly concerned about player safety.
“I've got a major opinion on that that I think when we talk about safety of our players, they should make it illegal to cut within the line of scrimmage,” Graham said. “We talked about taking care of kids and you've got guys taking on some things and somebody's cutting their knees. That's just -- that shouldn't -- I mean, really. If you want to get into safety, and I know there is a big focus on that, that's something that they should make illegal. Obviously we've got a lot of people hurt because of that.”
While the vast majority of teams in college football won’t cut at the line of scrimmage to the degree the Mustangs do, Graham must spend a week in which ASU is on short rest preparing his players to face another opponent that will use cut blocks. For the second straight week, ASU is facing a triple option opponent in the New Mexico Lobos, a Mountain West foe that has rushed the ball on 71 percent of its offensive plays through its first two games.
Last year, ASU overcame early difficulties in handling defensive assignments and responsibilities to trounce the Lobos by a final score of 58-23, and in doing so, it allowed just 3.6 yards per carry.
The longest run New Mexico rattled off wound up being a 25-yard rush from now-senior running back Jhurrell Pressley, but the early challenges ASU faced were reminiscent of the struggles it had on Saturday.
Graham said facing a triple option team is dramatically different, and because the score was close on Saturday, it might alter the perception of what the Sun Devils are capable of doing defensively. In reality, he said the main difference against facing Cal Poly’s triple option compared to previous iterations was ASU’s inability to score offensively.
“We struggled with some assignments against the triple option and the team that runs it pretty good,” Graham said. “So we basically, like when I got done we gave up a little over like 330 yards of total offense, and we gave up 345 or 375 against Navy (in 2012). The difference was we scored. So that type of offense, anybody that really knows football is dramatically different. It's 3rd and 8, and it's a completely different game than what we play.”
Additionally, ASU also benefitted from forcing a pair of first quarter turnovers against New Mexico, which negated the offensive progress the Lobos started to build. The Lobos notched three runs of at least 20 yards in the first quarter, but ASU’s collective success put the game out of hand early.
Against Cal Poly, the Sun Devils lost the turnover battle 2-0, and when ASU’s offense went stagnant, the defense was forced to make quick turnarounds and head back onto the field.
Graham has long emphasized the importance of turnovers in regards to the outcome of games, and he referenced redshirt junior tight end Kody Kohl’s second quarter fumble as a point where ASU should have been able to put Cal Poly away early.
“We've fumbled the ball five times in the first game and lost it twice,” Graham said. “Just putting the ball to the ground and we had -- it's 21-7 with two minutes and something left in the half. We've got the football. We just made a first down. You go down and make it 28-7, now it's a regular deal. Turn it over on your own end, that is the second week in a row that we've done that. So we've got to take care of the football and not put the ball in jeopardy. “
Graham was careful to make the distinction that New Mexico incorporates different wrinkles into its triple option sets compared to most teams that use the scheme. Last year, ASU got a firm handle on how New Mexico attacks defenses, and it appeared to be a much more perimeter-based approach than what the Sun Devils saw against Cal Poly.
While the Mustangs took advantage of handing the ball to the dive back, including eight consecutive times on an eight-play, 64-yard scoring drive, the Lobos want to maximize their speed, get to the edge, and put their athletes in space.
ASU is likely the only power conference team that will face back-to-back triple option offenses in games this season, and Graham said he’s not sure how well this will prepare the Sun Devils for the regular season.
Though the triple option is run by smaller opponents ASU should have no problem handling, it’s preferable to face teams that run similar offenses to the schemes the Sun Devils will face in conference play.
Nevertheless, Graham understands the challenges playing New Mexico creates, because it’s a team that has a firm grasp of its offensive identity, is well-coached, and has more playmakers than traditional triple option teams like Army and Navy.
“We've gotten quite a few reps at the option, but I don't know how much it helps you going into the season,” Graham said. “That's one of the things I don't like because there are so many things you have to specifically do. But that's the way it is. You have to play somebody. But they're very explosive. They gave us fits last year. They're a very well-coached football team, very capable, big play capabilities.”
After a 66-0 blowout of Mississippi Valley State in week one, the Lobos dropped a week two contest with Tulsa by a score of 40-21. Despite ending the first quarter with the lead, the Lobos fell after surrendering 600 yards of total offense and committed 14 penalties for 154 yards.
So even though this week’s primary focus will center on how ASU’s defense copes with injuries and facing the triple option for the second straight week, Friday night’s game is a chance for the Sun Devil offense to redeem itself after a lackluster performance, especially in the red zone, against Cal Poly.
Graham said a successful week would constitute a jump in tempo and efficiency, as well as a renewed sense of urgency on that side of the ball. After maintaining one of the top scoring offenses in college football for the last two years, ASU’s tempo has appeared to decline in the first two weeks of 2015.
“So the tempo, what I'm talking about tempo it's just us understanding that we want to go fast,” Graham said. “Obviously the first first down is the key. But when you see those big chunk gains and you get a big gain, we should be going warp speed, and that's something we've got to -- we're working very hard on that this week.”
Though Graham pines for every game to have a “big game” feel, the reality is ASU is still attempting to iron out some of its deficiencies before conference play.
“We’ve done some good things to this point, but we haven’t played to our potential,” Graham said. “We need to get things hitting on all strides instead of playing good here and good there. But we've had a lot of positive things and positive signs. But this game's important just like any other game, but it's very, very important that we have momentum going into the conference play next week.”