If there's one play that's still stuck in the mind of Arizona State defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing from Saturday's contest against Northern Arizona, it's a fourth quarter touchdown that violated the No. 1 rule of the Sun Devils' defense.
Since his arrival at ASU, Rushing has been adamant with his cornerbacks and safeties, pleading with them to prevent wide receivers from getting behind them.
But with ASU ahead 26-6, the Sun Devils' golden rule was violated. Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus found wide receiver Elijah Marks streaking past graduate transfer Bryson Echols en route to an 87-yard touchdown that more than doubled the length of the Lumberjacks' next longest play from scrimmage.
“If you asked me on Saturday what play sucked the most, it was that play, that play sucked the most," Rushing said. "But you know, it happens every now and then, we still held them to 13 points, a high-octane offense, so we’re happy with that.”
The Lumberjacks racked up 369 yards through the air against an ASU secondary that finished dead last in the country last season with 337 passing yards allowed per game. Still, that play coupled with a 50-50 Hail Mary pass that ended up in the hands of Lumberjacks' wide receiver Emmanuel Butler at the end of the first half accounted for 123 of Northern Arizona's yards through the air.
While the Sun Devils have to live with the fact Cookus completed those two explosive plays, Rushing said ASU's defensive backs did a decent job of limiting Northern Arizona's big play potential.
“We gave up one, the 87-yarder, that one sucked, that was miscommunication, a blown coverage type of deal, that we can’t have," Rushing said. "Other than that, they had that one big play going into halftime that was unfortunate that we missed the interception so we’re limiting those plays and we’ll continue to get better.”
While the Sun Devils' new offensive coordinator and quarterback competition stole offseason headlines, it was easy to forget ASU was breaking in a pair of new starting cornerbacks Saturday.
Senior De'Chavon Hayes transitioned to corner at the end of September last season while Orr earned starts at safety during his freshman campaign, but Saturday's test against one of the elite passing attacks in the FCS served as their most extensive action as cornerbacks.
With Texas Tech's Air Raid attack looming in week two, Orr said Saturday's matchup against the Lumberjacks provided a good baseline for ASU to evaluate its performance and ability to limit explosive plays in the secondary.
“I thought it was a good matchup, wasn’t really that much challenging to me," Orr said. "I thought as a group we played well besides the one deep ball we had gave up, but other than that, I thought we played pretty good. We were tackling pretty well, everything we needed to do, had good assignments.”
As injuries began to decimate the Sun Devils' secondary toward the end of last season, head coach Todd Graham employed an all-or-nothing defensive strategy that frequently put defensive backs on islands in man coverage as ASU blitzed five-to-six players. The Sun Devils struggled down the stretch of the season, especially against Air Raid attacks like Washington State and Cal that eventually picked up on matchup advantages and put the Sun Devils' defensive backs in compromising positions.
During fall camp, ASU practiced more zone coverage looks in an effort to become more schematically versatile, and Saturday's game against Northern Arizona was also the first time the Sun Devils were able to test out zone coverage in a live situation.
Rushing said ASU's zone coverages held up structurally against the Lumberjacks, which reflects well on Graham's commitment to adjusting the Sun Devils' scheme to benefit its personnel.
“I thought structurally it was fine, it was good, it was good trying to eliminate the big plays," Rushing said. "That’s what I tell everybody, coach Graham does a good job revamping himself every year and coming out with the best plan for each team. We thought that would be that’s what would work for us and it did Saturday.”
Preparing for the Air Raid
By the middle of the third quarter, the Sun Devils were without five of their regular defensive starters. Three players were sidelined from the outset of the game while junior linebacker Christian Sam suffered a first quarter injury and junior linebacker Marcus Ball was disqualified for a targeting penalty early in the second half.
Against Texas Tech, ASU will have senior defensive tackle Viliami Latu (disciplinary suspension) back in action, as well as senior safety Laiu Moeakiola. Moeakiola missed Saturday's contest after being hampered by a hamstring injury for much of fall camp, but Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said Moeakiola should be ready to go by the time the Red Raiders roll into town.
Graham has not said whether senior linebacker Salamo Fiso (disciplinary suspension) will return against Texas Tech, but Fiso is better suited against run-first opponents anyway.
When Sam went down Saturday, senior linebacker Carlos Mendoza stepped in to fill the void and recorded five tackles in Sam's place. Because Mendoza's playing time has been limited due to injuries in his career, one of the last times he saw significant playing time came during his freshman season in the Sun Devils' 63-6 win over Northern Arizona.
“I thought it pretty funny because it was like the first game coming back and I was watching some film actually on that freshman game just to see how I looked and I did pretty terrible," Mendoza said of his first game with the Sun Devils. "I was lost when I was a freshman but I felt a lot better this time. I’ve been here for so long and I’ve figured out the scheme a lot more."
When Ball was disqualified, sophomore Spur linebacker Tyler Whiley stepped in for the first extended action of his career. Whiley recorded three tackles and was credited with the Sun Devils' lone sack of the contest.
Even though Whiley moved from cornerback to Spur during fall camp, he said he felt prepared to play on Saturday because of the help of players like Ball and Moeakiola who have aided him in his acclimation to the position.
“I spent a lot of time in the film room and a lot of other guys like Laiu (Moeakiola) have helped me a lot," Whiley said.
With Sam's status for Saturday uncertain and Ball unable to play until after halftime due to the targeting penalty, ASU may once again lean on Mendoza and Whiley against a pass-happy opponent in Texas Tech.
Sophomore safety Armand Perry said the Sun Devils must be ready for a team determined to push the tempo offensively on Saturday, and said ASU's ability to limit the Red Raiders' success in the vertical passing game and on screen plays will be key for defensive success.
"The Air Raid is the Air Raid, you know?" Perry said. "Fast tempo, they run, last game they ran 105 plays. Quick screens, deep shots, you know. I think when people watch our film, they’re going to try to attack us the same way. So, pretty much like that.”
While the Sun Devils aren't overly-confident after surrendering 369 yards through the air, the team's defensive personnel is excited about facing another stiff challenge in Texas Tech that should provide a great means for evaluating the unit's overall progress.
After surrendering one deep touchdown against Northern Arizona and nearly allowing the Lumberjacks to capitalize on a 50-50 Hail Mary pass, Rushing said he's looking for the secondary to exhibit the same level of competitiveness this Saturday while cutting down on the group's mistakes.
“I think they were competitive, they went out and competed like crazy, there was little things that we did wrong that we could do better and hopefully we get that done this weekend and hopefully we’ll continue to grow," Rushing said.