In the rotating carousel that was Arizona State's defense Saturday night, the Sun Devils finally found their rhythm in the second half after multiple personnel adjustments.
With ASU senior linebacker Salamo Fiso not playing in his second-straight game due to suspension and junior linebacker Christian Sam also not playing due to a right ankle injury suffered in ASU's win against Northern Arizona last week, ASU knew going into the game it would be down two key defensive players.
Add in the health of senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola still up in the air and losing junior linebacker Marcus Ball for the first half of the game, and ASU had to get creative. Ball was unable to play in the first half due to a targeting penalty he was flagged for against NAU.
"There was some challenges," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "We had our defensive end (senior Alani Latu) playing the inside linebacker against a five-wide team tonight. That was somewhat of a challenge. So having guys out, Salamo out, Laiu is still very limited not 100 percent so he played a little bit. Having Marcus out the first half. I love how our guys responded."
Latu recorded five tackles in his first start at Sam linebacker.
ASU sophomore linebacker Tyler Whiley got the start at Spur linebacker over Ball but was exposed on two big plays in the first half.
In the first of Whiley's breakdowns, he was caught between two vertical routes -- both were open -- and Texas Tech junior quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw a perfect pass to wide receiver Derrick Willies for a 59-yard touchdown that put Texas Tech up 14-9 over ASU with 1:14 left in the first quarter. Mahomes was 9-for-9 for 130 yards before the touchdown pass to Willies.
In the second of the two breakdowns by Whiley, Mahomes threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to junior running back Justin Stockton with 12:55 left in the second quarter to put Texas Tech up 21-16. Mahomes was nearly sacked on the play by junior linebacker Koron Crump, but evaded the pressure and Stockton went nearly untouched after Whiley was in man coverage on the play and blatantly missed a tackle.
"What was tough defensively, I don't want to say anything negative at this point, we had a great win, but so many things tonight were due to their tempo," Graham said. "And we just totally busted three or four coverages and that hurt us and we had a lot of guys playing who didn't have a lot of experience and out of position."
After Whiley's coverage breakdowns, Moeakiola came into the game at Spur linebacker and tried his hand at stopping Mahomes and the Air Raid, but not fully healthy, he wasn't the asset that he normally is for the Sun Devils.
In the second half, Ball came in as the Spur linebacker and ASU's defense did a 180-degree flip from a conservative style of play to more of a Graham-esque blitzing defense.
"We felt like, the kids they kind of felt like they were rushing three most of the time and dropping eight and we were struggling a little bit and they were doing some creative things with their backs and stuff so we are just trying to get a little bit of pressure and hit the guy a little bit," Graham said
In the first half, ASU was playing more of a conservative Cover 3 like it did against Northern Arizona in its season opener. In the second half, ASU switched to a scheme that incorporated more of Graham's normal pressures and forced Mahomes to make more challenging decisions in a hurry.
“They make good adjustments," Mahomes said. "They came out, they put more pressure on me. They tried to disguise their blitzing more, but at the same time as an offense we weren’t doing things we’ve always done. We could tell we were pressing, I especially was pressing trying to make plays happen instead of just taking what they gave me. Credit to them for putting me in that situation, but at the same time we have to execute at a high level as an offense.”
Texas Tech was 5-of-7 on third down conversions in the first half and only 1-of-6 on third down conversions in the second half.
Graham said they thought ASU disrupted Mahomes due to the two interceptions he threw to ASU senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes and was proud of his defense for the adjustments it made coming out of halftime. Graham also noted how Texas Tech wide receivers were "running free on wheel routes" in the first half and it was a cause of frustration.
“They (ASU defense) did a lot of good things the whole game," Mahomes said. "Defensively they did blitz a little bit more in the second half and it worked out well for them so it was good adjustments they made at halftime. We still need to execute better as an offense.”
Special teams play
Lost in the record-setting night of ASU junior running back Kalen Ballage, ASU senior punter Matt Haack had three punts, all downed inside the 20-yard line. All three punts were over 50 yards as well.
While Texas Tech's average starting position was at its own 20-yard line, ASU's average starting position was at its own 32-yard line.
Special teams has been a bright spot for the Sun Devils so far in the 2016 season with Haack and senior kicker Zane Gonzalez leading the way. Last year, Haack had 74 punts for 3,186 yards and a 48.1 average.
The only miscue on special teams against Texas Tech was senior wide receiver Frederick Gammage getting flagged for a personal foul penalty after running into the Texas Tech punter on a fourth and 2 midway through the third quarter. While Gammage gave Texas Tech a fresh set of downs, the Red Raiders were unable to move the ball on offense and punted back to ASU three plays later.
"We had a bad roughing penalty that hurt us but we made some key defensive stops when we had to," Graham said. "I am really proud of our guys because that was a heck of a football team."
Other news and notes
- Junior offensive lineman A.J. McCollum got his first start at center with senior Stephon McCray being pushed out to right guard. In what had appeared to be a tough matchup at the point of attack for ASU, McCollum and McCray held Michigan grad transfer Ondre Pipkins at bay along the trenches with only one tackle on the night. Notre Dame transfer Kolin Hill had only four tackles and sophomore defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko. Fehoko was one of Texas Tech’s key run stoppers on the inside, recording 19 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack and one interception last season.
- ASU ran 90 plays from scrimmage and had only five negative plays and ASU sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins didn't have any balls that were in jeopardy or interceptions out of his 37 attempts.
- Freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry led the team in receiving yards with six catches for 72 yards and one touchdown.
- ASU converted 6-of-6 red zone opportunities.
- ASU was 9-of-16 on third downs and dominated in this stat because Texas Tech was 1-of-6 on third downs in the second half.
- Junior defensive lineman Christian Hill burned his redshirt in the H-back position when blocking in ASU's Wildcat formation. ASU scored six touchdowns out of the formation as Ballage tied the NCAA record with eight total touchdowns.