Arizona Offensive Scheme
More than any other team in the Pac-12, Arizona relies upon the mobility of its quarterback to set its offense in motion. Yes, even more than Oregon.
While the Wildcats don’t necessarily need their quarterback to rack up a lot of yards on the ground in order to be successful, they incorporate more throws on intentional roll outs and bootlegs than any other team in the league.
It is a system designed to induced mistakes from opposing defensive players. There’s a big schematic emphasis on layered play action fakes that force defensive backs in particular to make multiple correct decisions in quick succession — often nearly simultaneously — post-snap in order to be successful.
The Wildcats want to initially trick the eye discipline and processing power of defensive backs with play action fakes at the line of scrimmage that occur nearly simultaneously with the need to read what the receivers are doing. It’s essentially a run or pass read and a bubble screen or vertical route read that defensive backs must correctly identify and often leads to indecision. That’s something that ASU and other teams commonly do in the Pac-12 on offense, so it’s not an unusual challenge in and of itself.
Where the Wildcats are really outside of the norm is how they then additionally test the discipline of defensive backs by moving the quarterback quite aggressively outside the pocket in order to induce mistakes and get defenders to break off their responsibility by feeling stress to respond to the quarterback run threat.
This is a style of play that exposes the quarterback more and so it’s not really a big surprise that Arizona’s had injury problems at the position, including starter Anu Solomon, who is questionable to play after suffering a concussion in the fourth quarter of the team’s double overtime win over Utah last week on a scramble.
Perhaps in an effort to protect his health as much as possible, Solomon’s run the ball about half as much this season as last year, when he averaged around 10 carries per game, and certainly the Wildcats would much rather throw in these situations than run the ball. But this depends on quarterback capability as well as how opponents defend the plays.
Solomon’s backup, fifth-year senior Jerrard Randall, is a freakish athlete who presents almost like a wide receiver athletically than a typical quarterback. He has a great arm and throws a terrific ball but his accuracy, decision-making and feel for the game are well below average.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when Randall is in the game — and he may get the start against the Sun Devils on Saturday — he’s relied on much more for his feet than his arm given the design of the team’s offense.
Randall has played in nine games and has 70 carries and 77 pass attempts, a near even split, which is almost unheard of in recent years in the Pac-12. For comparison’s sake, Solomon’s rate is closer to 6:1 pass to run.
Arizona’s success as an offense this season and in general has come from an ability to establish the run early in games, and this of course will be the case even more if Randall gets the start. The Wildcats are second in the Pac-12 with 236.6 rushing yards per game, and have used a two-headed tailback approach to get there. But in losses, they’ve consistently and often dramatically underperformed their average, often by half or more.
The Wildcats have solid perimeter weapons, led by big playmaker Cayleb Jones on the outside and slot receiver Nate Phillips, but the question is whether Randall will be able to accurately get the ball to them and take advantage of an ASU defense that has given up more big plays than just about anyone nationally.
Partly because of how they like get their quarterback on the run, Arizona throws to its backs on swings and screens far less than most Pac-12 teams, and instead stresses defenses laterally through the bubble screen ability to receivers and quarterback roll outs.
Arizona Offensive Personnel
Anu Solomon (No. 12) // Jerrard Randall (No. 8) — Solomon is a more accurate passer and better polished quarterback. He could really give ASU some trouble with his ability to accurately throw on the move if he plays, especially with some the problems we’ve seen from a decision-making and communication standpoint in the secondary, as well as loose coverage from senior cornerback Kweishi Brown. Randall’s a totally different type of player. Arizona will run designed sweeps and other runs for him, and he’s got a team-high 9.8 yards-per-carry average with five touchdowns. He’s the most athletic quarterback in the league and the biggest containment headache, especially with the Arizona scheme being what it is. But though he’s mistake prone and inaccurate at times, Randall has a really big arm and can get the ball to open receivers behind the defense.
Nick Wilson (No. 28) // Jared Baker (No. 23) — This is a very good tandem of running backs but nothing outside the norm of what ASU’s faced to this point in the Pac-12 schedule from a strength or elusiveness standpoint in a league full of talented backs. Wilson’s put up huge numbers though, including 1,375 rushing yards last season with 16 touchdowns and a 5.8 yards-per-carry average. His production and carries-per-game are down a bit this year but he’s still averaging 5.7 yards. He’s a slippery inside runner who sees the hole developing and has a good combination of patience and quickness. Baker is a little smaller but also shifty and similar in a lot of respects, but more of a threat to catch the ball.
Cayleb Jones (No. 1) — A 6-foot-3, 215 perimeter weapon and the team’s most athletic outside receiver, Jones led Arizona last season with 1,019 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. He’ll line up on the far side or into the boundary and is physical and explosive vertical threat on go and hitch and go routes along the sideline. When Arizona’s offense enables it and a cornerback is susceptible, Jones can take over a game. He could be a real challenge for Brown on the outside if quarterback play enables it. He’s got 41 catches for 539 yards but only three touchdowns this season.
David Richards (No. 4) — A 6-foot-4, 215 pound big outside receiver, Richard makes a lot of plays due to his physicality. He’s not as much of a threat to separate from defensive backs as Jones but makes a lot of traffic catches and is a full service weapon at the position who is tied for a team-high with five touchdown receptions on 39 total catches for 482 yards.
Nate Phillips (No. 6) — A jitterbug of a slot receiver, Phillips works leverage routes underneath very effectively and Arizona likes to get him working laterally to the outside working with the flow of the quarterback on roll outs. One the game winning touchdown against Utah in double overtime, Phillips lined up into the boundary on a 2x2 and attacked the boundary safety on a vertical. That’s something ASU will have to watch out for.
Johnny Jackson (No. 30) — A surprise this season, Jackson played receiver his first couple seasons before switching to defense after not being especially productive. But he moved back to the offensive side of the ball for his fifth year senior season and is now leading the Wildcats with 42 catches with five touchdowns. He’s heavily targeted as an inside receiver in Arizona’s frequent 2x2 and 3x1 formations and along with Phillps is one of he team’s two best run after catch playmakers.
ASU defense against Arizona offense
There’s a real strategic challenge — and potentially a dilemma — in this game for ASU coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. How to find the right balance of attacking in the way they normally do with their ultra-aggressive defense without having it bite them in the rear end by losing containment of Randall, especially with how Arizona will incorporate play action roll outs? This is the type of quarterback that may be best to defend with a light pass rush and with zone land mine defenders and spies well spaced and located to attack the run threat and take advantage of Randall’s inaccuracy.
Of course, Graham’s the type of schemer who will probably try to corral Randall with field side overload blitzes and induce mistake throws. That’s a dangerous game against a quarterback with Randall’s level of evasiveness, especially with runs through the heart of the defense with how ASU tends to vacate the second level on overload pressures. A quarterback scrambling freely vertically through the line of scrimmage is a dangerous thing. The whole key for ASU — which has a very good run defense — is to try to make Arizona one-dimensional and force Randall into longish third downs and mistake throws. ASU lost last season in Tucson and only generated one turnover. In each of the two previous seasons it beat Arizona, aided by Wildcat quarterbacks that threw three interceptions in each game.
This is both a good and bad opponent for ASU to face with defensive injuries in its secondary because Randall isn’t as accurate, but there are more eye discipline mistakes that can be made against the Wildcats than other teams, and indeed, that’s how it got torched last season when Arizona scored 42 points despite having just 13 first downs in the entire game, and also got abused by Oregon. Big play breakdowns — which have really cost ASU this year — were crippling in that game, and can be again if the Sun Devils aren’t appropriately disciplined.
Arizona Defensive Scheme
Not only are the Wildcats different from their Pac-12 peers on offense, they beat to their own defensive drum as well. In fact, they may be even more distinct with their basic defensive structure and ideology.
A lot of teams use odd-front defense in the Pac-12 and the Wildcats primarily employ a three-down, two-gap front. What’s really a differentiator though is that unlike all others in the league, Arizona often has a six man box for offenses to contend with from a blocking and protections standpoint.
Most odd fronts have a five man box, with two outside linebackers or hybrid players not having to be accounted for in the same way as Arizona’s base stack alignment.
The Wildcats have made this a more nuanced challenge this season —and especially in recent weeks — as injuries to a handful of starting linebackers including star junior Scooby Wright (who was the unquestionable star of last year’s Territorial Cup) and starter Jake Matthews last week — and an inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks, has led to forced improvisation by defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.
Of late, Arizona has moved around its linebackers around more and often done so in a disguised way immediately pre-snap, an approach that can induce blocking mistakes. The Wildcats’ ineffectiveness at pass rushing has also led to some tweaks, with more involvement from a safety blitzer moved up on the line of scrimmage out of what’s really a base nickel 3-3-5.
Arizona is eleventh in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, ninth in yards-per-play allowed, tenth in total defense, tenth in pass defense, eleventh in pass efficiency defense and last in interceptions. It has not impacted the quarterback a lot — eighth in sacks — and has not covered well even when not blitzing, in part because of its commitment to stopping the run often including more personnel than others in the league.
So the Wildcats have had to do something, and they decided to start blitzing more in the last couple weeks and playing even more man coverage behind it than normal, and this strategy has worked to some degree.
Arizona had 19 sacks in its first 10 games combined and then had four in its win over Top-10 Utah last week due in part to this more aggressive approach.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez and ASU coach Todd Graham have worked with each other and both used the 3-3-5 stack but Graham’s version evolved differently than Rodriguez, with the Sun Devils becoming more of a four down defense with the Devil backer putting his hand in the ground and ASU being a one-gap style. It’s totally different now up front between the two teams.
Where there are remaining similarities is with the back five defenders, with Arizona using a hybrid safety similar to ASU’s Spur and flipping its players from field to boundary.
Arizona Defensive Personnel
William Parks (No. 11) — Arizona’s version of the Spur position — which Arizona also calls Spur — Parks aligns to the field side in the alley most of the time. A senior, Parks may be the Wildcats’ best player when Wright isn’t healthy and on the field. Parks leads the team in tackles (59), is second in tackles for loss (4.5), pass break ups (7) and passes defended (7). Accounting for him is tough but has to be done on field side runs.
Jamar Allah (No. 7) — A Bandit safety Arizona has started using more as a boundary side blitzer in its shift to a more aggressive approach of late. Allah is third on the team with 48 tackles and is the most athletic and speediest of the rushers from the edge even though he’s only tallied two sacks.
Davonte' Neal (No. 19) — After playing wide receiver earlier in his career, Neal switched to defense because of regular lapses and a modest skill set. In a lot of ways he’s been like junior running back De’Chavon Hayes for ASU, an athletic player who was hyped but has not delivered. But Neal’s in his fourth year of major college football and has fewer excuses. He plays on the field side at corner and is starting to perform a little better, second on the team in tackles with 49 — not a great sign for a cover corner — with five passes defended with just one interception.
Tellas Jones (No. 1) — Arizona’s field safety, Jones has had to make too many big play saving tackles for the Wildcats. He’s racked up some stats at times, but usually it’s not been a reflection of an impressive broader defensive performance. The Wildcats will bring him up from deep to blitz a fair amount and play man coverage on the wide side, and he’s pretty good at it, with a team-high 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Yes, 2.5 sacks leads the team (tied).
DeAndre Miller (No. 32) — The sophomore SAM backer is one of the better prospects on the Arizona roster, with impressive range and a high ceiling. He should be more of a playmaker as he continues to became a better student of the game, but Miller will often be found chasing down plays sideline to sideline and has 35 tackles. With Wright and Matthews out, he becomes more important.
ASU offense against Arizona defense
A consistent theme in ASU’s last three games against the Wildcats has been offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s desire to use Arizona’s six man boxes against it in the run game by trying to out-flank Arizona on perimeter runs. There’s been a relentless approach in this regard, with Marion Grice rushing for 156 yards and three touchdowns in the 2012 game as ASU totaled 269 yards. A year later, D.J. Foster had 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Taylor Kelly only completed 29 passes between the two games combined and yet ASU had 99 points between the two games.
Last year, ASU lost decidedly at Arizona. One of the big reasons is ASU lose the turnover battle 2-1 after getting three interceptions each in 2012 and 2013. But another reason is Scooby Wright and Arizona significantly limited ASU’s outside the tackle runs due to his incredible pursuit and ability to not be blocked. ASU had just 113 rushing yards on 42 attempts. Kelly and Bercovici combined for 27 completions — two fewer than 2012 and 2013 combined — and yet ASU took a drubbing.
This season, the Sun Devils have been much more potent on offense when sophomores Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage have combined to put together productive rushing games and senior D.J. Foster has been very involved in two-back sets. Even though Arizona’s passing defense has really struggled, it’s the ability to establish the run, especially outside zone and buck sweeps that will really enable the Sun Devils to put a lot of points on the board.
Arizona State is a better team this season in the current health state of both teams and should win by double digits, even though the Territorial Cup has a history of underdog wins. My prediction is 43-31, with ASU getting a random safety somewhere in there.