Arizona State has lost four games in a row just once during the Todd Graham era, but heading into Saturday’s homecoming contest against Washington, the Sun Devils are on the verge of matching their longest slide under their current head coach.
In consecutive losses against Utah, Oregon and Washington State, the Sun Devils owned fourth quarter leads, only to fall apart in the closing minutes.
Losing close games takes an emotional and physical toll on a team, but Graham said after Thursday’s practice this year’s team is better equipped to handle the frustration than the program was during its four-game slide in the middle of the 2012 season.
“This team is the exact opposite of where we were in 2012,” Graham said. “We’ve got a solid foundation, guys believe in what we’re doing, we’ve just lost three games in the fourth quarter and we’ve got to get that off our back. The three teams that we just lost to, this team is every bit as good as they are.”
Even though ASU has responded well to each defeat, the Sun Devils cannot afford for the losing streak to continue.
In their final three regular season games, the Sun Devils will take on three other reeling squads pining for bowl eligibility in Washington, Arizona and California.
While ASU has taken a step back following back-to-back 10-win seasons, the Sun Devils can use the 2015 stretch run to prove the program is still heading in a positive direction.
The Sun Devils need their progress to start against Washington, another 4-5 team in with a similar outlook on its remaining schedule.
Like ASU, Washington hung around until the closing moments against Oregon and Utah, and Graham said he believes the Huskies are better than the Washington State squad the Sun Devils fell against on Saturday.
“They (ASU) know that this team we’re playing, I think it’s better than we played last week,” Graham said. “They’re better defensively, I think they’re not better as far as coaching, but just the schematic of what they do is difficult, a lot more difficult. So we’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Pete (Petersen), the job that they do, so we’ve got to play well.”
The respect Graham holds for Petersen and the Washington coaching staff has roots that run deeper than their experience in the Pac-12. When Graham coached at Tulsa and Petersen was at the helm of the Boise State program, Graham traveled to Boise to exchange philosophical ideas, including thoughts on some of the Broncos’ famed trick plays.
“It’s funny, coach (Petersen) and I met when I was at Tulsa, we used to get together,” Graham said. “We spent a week together talking about special plays, and all of that stuff. It’s interesting, we have a lot of the same special plays, because we shared ideas. It doesn’t do you any good to worry, but that’s what I’m talking about, you’re going to get a lot of volume with them.”
In his first season with the Huskies last year, Peterson led the program to an eight-win season and a third-place finish in the Pac-12 North. But after Petersen’s first year on the job, the program suffered significant personnel losses and was forced to rebuild on both sides of the football.
Nowhere was Petersen’s commitment to restructuring the Washington team in his image more apparent than at the quarterback position, where the Huskies elected to start true freshman Jake Browning
A prolific prep quarterback and the national high school record holder for career touchdown passes with 229, Browning won the job over junior Jeff Lindquist and redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels.
Even though Browning emerged from Folsom High School as a polished passer, immediately transitioning to a starting role in the Pac-12 is a tremendously difficult task. The Huskies’ coaching staff has done a nice job limiting the potential damage of playing a quarterback coming directly from the high school ranks, as his progress has impressed redshirt junior Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola
“He’s doing a great job, he’s leading a Division I program and they have four wins as a team,” Moeakiola said. “That’s tough for any freshman quarterback. It’s a big challenge for both teams to do what we do best and keep everything inside and in front of us.”
After dialing back their blitz packages against a wide-open Washington State passing attack last week, the Sun Devils could feel compelled to ratchet up their pressure schemes against Browning.
ASU enjoyed great success forcing UCLA Bruins true freshman Josh Rosen off of his landing marks in the pocket, and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said pressuring Browning is a key element for Saturday’s game.
“That’s where I think we’ve got to make him move his feet and throw the ball on the run because when it gets chaotic on him, I think he has a very difficult time,” Patterson said. “We’ve got to keep him in the pocket, force him to throw under duress.”
Graham and Patterson indicated the Washington coaches have tailored their offense to maximize Browning’s success by running the football and creating numbers mismatches at the point of attack.
Browning has attempted 242 passes this season, which is fewer than all other Pac-12 quarterbacks who have played in at least eight games except for Stanford’s Kevin Hogan (201) and Utah’s Travis Wilson (215).
To generate success in their running game, the Huskies send players in motion and use presnap shifts to catch defenses off guard and allow their personnel a split-second advantage if defenses react late.
“Trades and shifts and motions, and really, basically, just trying to distract you and get your eyes off your keys or you get outflanked or out-gapped,” Patterson said. “So it’s going to be big that we’re sound in our motion adjustments, and don’t allow them to outflank us and give them cheap plays.”
The Huskies own the No. 11 ranked rushing offense in the Pac-12, but unlike Washington State, which ASU faced on Saturday, Washington is intent on running the football.
Part of the reason the Huskies lack the offensive statistics to match their conference counterparts is a slower offensive tempo, which is used to control the clock and minimize the amount of mistakes a young offensive unit might make playing at a faster clip.
The Huskies’ 554 offensive plays are far and away the fewest in the Pac-12, but they still run the ball on more than 50 percent of their plays.
“Oh yeah, they run the ball, they’re going to run the ball a lot better than Washington State did,” ASU defensive backs coach Chris Ball said. “They try to formation you a little bit, they do a great job of running the football and mixing things up.”
The danger in playing a young team toward the end of a season is that inexperienced units become more cohesive as the year progresses.
Browning and freshman tailback Myles Gaskin have gained confidence throughout their first season on the field, and their development, as well as the entire offense’s has manifested itself in recent performances.
In the past two weeks, Washington has dismantled Arizona 49-3, and given Utah a strong test before self-inflicted errors, something ASU knows quite a bit about, ultimately allowed the Utes to pull away in the fourth quarter.
Nevertheless, Graham and the Sun Devils are impressed by the strides Washington’s offense has made over the course of the season, and ASU knows it’s facing a team, much like itself, that desperately needs those strides to turn into victories.
“Obviously they’ve got very skilled athletes as Washington always does at the skill positions,” Graham said. “Then they’ve got a freshman quarterback who was kind of feeling his way around early, and he’s now hitting his stride and when I get done watching the film, I go, ‘What’s their record?’ because they look pretty good. They beat the dog out of USC and I mean, nothing tricky about it, they’ve got good athletes.”
Despite losing three key components of its defense to the 2015 NFL Draft– nose tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, and two-way athlete Shaq Thompson – this year, UW’s defense hasn't appeared to take a step backwards.
Allowing only 18.8 points per game, UW’s scoring defense ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 and ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said on Wednesday he sees no clear weaknesses in the Huskies’ defense.
"They’re really good in the back end with guys, they’re long, athletic, physical, can cover and then up front, you’ve got some really explosive players that can get to the quarterback and play against the run,” Norvell said.
Despite losing Shelton in the middle, the Huskies have shown great progress with their young talent along the defensive line with sophomore nose tackle Elijah Qualls, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Greg Gaines, and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Vita Vea.
Behind these three key interior linemen UW has allowed opponents an average of 3.3 yards per carry – the fewest yards per carry in the Pac-12. UW’s rush defense ranks No. 5 in the conference, allowing 142.7 yards per game.
“Their whole defensive line is pretty good,” ASU senior center Nick Kelly said. “They got some backups that come in that are big body guys and they got some big linebackers who come down and hit hard and they’re a good defense. We just got to do us and make sure we give it everything we got.”
Washington's defense is similar to Utah’s in terms of physicality and aggressiveness, Kelly said, but with bigger players along the defensive line, which aids in their run-stopping abilities and production behind the line of scrimmage.
With 23 sacks on the season, the Huskies are tied for fifth in the Pac-12 and UW senior linebacker Travis Feeney accounts for most of them, entering Saturday’s game second in the Pac-12 with 6.5 sacks and also in tackles for loss with 13.
But while the Huskies’ defensive front has been strong this season, an ankle injury to Qualls on Oct. 31 forced the starting nose tackle to miss UW’s matchup against Utah last week.
On Thursday, UW head coach Chris Peterson said Qualls could “possibly” make the trip to Tempe as he had his last check with trainers later in the day. But even if Qualls happens to make the trip or not, ASU senior wide receiver Gary Chambers is confident the Sun Devils will have success running the ball.
“We plan on having some success on the ground,” Chambers said. “We got a lot of talent in the backfield and I think we think that we can run the ball really well against them.”
Norvell said he felt his offense has been “running the football as well as we’ve run the football since we’ve been here,” especially considering the opponents the Sun Devils have gone up against and the separate injuries to ASU sophomore running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.
Kelly said the offensive line has been working harder on emphasizing sustaining blocks in both the first level – against the opponent’s defensive front – and into the second level – on the linebackers – to allow more opportunities for Richard and Ballage to operate.
And while UW has shown its ability to put pressure on the quarterback, what has equally been as impressive is they are doing it with only four or five players. Not blitzing as often as other teams in the Pac-12 due to their size and stature along the defensive line, the Huskies are able to send six or seven players back in coverage.
Fourth in the conference in pass defense, the Huskies are allowing opponents an average of 6.8 yards per catch and additionally, the Huskies have only allowed six passing touchdowns through nine games.
Over the past seven seasons, no Pac-12 team has allowed fewer than 12 touchdowns passes.
Kelly said the protection along ASU’s front will be key to give ASU senior quarterback Mike Bercovici more time to locate an open receiver, but the responsibility also comes with making sure Bercovici understands “what the down and distance is so we get the first down and convert on third down situations.”
For the receivers, Chambers said it’s a challenge having so many defenders dropping back into the secondary, but when UW switches into its zone defense, there’s a handful of opportunities ASU can take advantage of.
“Any time you run zone, there’s soft spots in the zone and hopefully we can get out there and exploit those and then in any man coverage,” Chambers said. “Like I said it’s just about winning your one-on-ones.”
In other words, it’s up to the receivers to create mismatches and then find gaps within the Huskies’ zone coverage. And when the Huskies go into man coverage – which is what they run more times than not – Chambers said ASU sees opportunities opening up down the field.
“They play man a lot,” Chambers said. “Definitely a lot of 1-high safety kind of stuff so hopefully we’ll be able to get our vertical game going against them.”
But while Chambers is confident in ASU’s abilities to operate downfield, UW is third in the Pac-12 for interceptions with 12. Last year, the Huskies had 13 interceptions all season.
“They just play really tight man coverage, a little bit of zone here and there and their guys just go out and make plays and that’s what it’s all about, making plays on both sides of the ball.” Chambers said. “Hopefully we plan on running good routes, executing, getting good separation and none of that stuff can happen.”
As far as any deception with UW’s defensive coverages go, Chambers said the Huskies’ don’t do much – instead they rely on their execution in the secondary to get their defense off the field.
“They just line up and play,” Bercovici said. “That’s kind of what they do. They can get exotic and they can do multiple different things, but they’ve done well this season so far doing what they do.”