While Arizona State’s offense has been taking most of the heat for the program’s 4-3 start to the season, its defense isn't operating as effectively in all facets in 2015 as it has in the past.
Though they are having a typically strong season in terms of sacks and tackles-for-loss, ranking No. 5 and No. 1 in the FBS in the categories respectively, success in one key stat is missing.
Through seven games this season, ASU’s defense is last in the Pac-12 with a minus-4 turnover margin and tied for No. 9 in the league at turnovers generated, with just nine. The Sun Devils’ lack of turnovers compared to their frequency of plays made in the backfield has even stumped ASU head coach Todd Graham.
“I tell you what, that’s been bizarre.” Graham said Thursday regarding ASU’s turnover disparity compared to its tackles for loss and sacks. “We made a major emphasis this week as coaching staff in focusing on the takeaway part of it. We’re hitting them in the backfield. We’re hitting them hard. We’re, I think, on a record pace for us TFL (tackles for loss)-wise and impacting and sacking the quarterback, we’re just not getting the ball out.”
So far through seven games this season, ASU’s defense has yielded 69 TFLs, 24 sacks and six interceptions, but a mere three fumble recoveries. Historically, turnovers have been one of the Sun Devils’ biggest strong suits under Graham. They averaged 2.25 takeaways per game in Graham's first three seasons at ASU, a stark contrast to their 1.28 average in 2015.
Through 13 games last year, the Sun Devils had 98 TFLs, 39 sacks, 14 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries. In 2013, ASU had 101 TFLs, 40 sacks, 21 interceptions, and 12 fumble recoveries. In 2012, the Sun Devils had 117 TFLs, 52 sacks, 21 interceptions and nine forced fumbles.
But despite the team’s clear drop off in turnovers this season, ASU junior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola believes the Sun Devils’ defense just has to be more “proactive” about trying to generate turnovers on the field.
“It’s just emphasizing it every day,” Moeakiola said. “Guys just have to fly around to the football being conscious. When you tackle, just trying to get that ball out, not just being satisfied with the tackle, but trying to get the ball out and get a forced fumble.”
Being a veteran in ASU’s program, Moeakiola has seen firsthand the drop in turnover production from years past – a plus-6 turnover margin in 2012, plus-15 in 2013 and plus-14 in 2014 – but said generating turnovers isn’t a personnel issue, it’s just about players not emphasizing it enough in the moment.
While forcing fumbles in the backfield is about emphasis, Moeakiola said a contributing factor to ASU’s six interceptions through seven games – compared to the 21 interceptions each year in 2012 and 2013– is players already stopping plays in the backfield. Opposing quarterbacks' decision making also plays a major role.
“I think a lot of it (not getting as many interceptions) is guys getting to the ball already with sacks and TFLs and we just have to make sure that when the time does come that we capitalize on it,” Moeakiola said.
ASU sophomore defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood echoed Moeakiola’s reasoning for the team’s reduction in takeaways and said creating turnovers has been a specific focus for the team during the bye week.
“Every tackle, we’re getting the ball out,” Smallwood said. “They (coaches) are counting them up every play. That’s been a major, major focus.”
Since the Sun Devils have been emphasizing generating turnovers at practice, Smallwood believes this skill is “definitely going to translate into games.”
If Smallwood is correct and ASU’s defense can start generating turnovers, not only will it add more life to the Sun Devil defense, but it will also try to help heal an ailing ASU offense.
In years past, ASU’s defense was consistently able to give its offense favorable field position due to the defense’s turnover production.
From 2012-2014, ASU’s defense averaged 31 turnovers per year. Through those turnovers, ASU’s offense was able to start its drives in its opponent’s territory on average of 14.7 times per season. That’s roughly 1.1 chances per game through three seasons.
But in a year when a struggling Sun Devils’ offense probably needs turnovers and short fields the most, the ASU defense hasn’t delivered.
So far in 2015, ASU’s defense has caused nine turnovers and given its offense four chances to start in its opponent’s territory. Through seven games this season, that’s about .57 chances per game, almost half of what the program has been averaging in the past.
With the drop in short field opportunities for ASU’s offense and a lack of production from its supposed offensive weapons, the Sun Devils offense has been averaging 29.1 points per game – by far the lowest in the Graham era – and its defense has only scored an average of .86 of those 29.1 points per game, well off its average of 2.51 the last three seasons.
Compared to ASU’s four defensive touchdowns in 2012 and five in each in 2013 and 2014, the 2015 ASU squad has zero defensive touchdowns and three safeties. That's on top of the reduction by roughly half that ASU has seen in offensive opportunities generated by its defense inside opposing territory.
But, while Moeakiola said personnel isn’t what's limiting ASU in generating turnovers, it’s hard to look past the lack of players who resemble a Marcus Hardison or a Will Sutton in the trenches or players similar to Damarious Randall or Robert Nelson in the secondary.
If ASU's offense continues to underperform its historical averages under Graham, and its defense can't generate more turnovers, its record-pace in tackles for loss may not be enough to make satisfactory its final win-loss record at the end of the season.