After playing a modern Texas Tech Air Raid offense last week, Arizona State will be going back in time to prepare to face the University of Texas at San Antonio at the Alamodome on Friday.
“These guys (UTSA) are much more traditional,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “I mean, it’s almost like watching a 2016 offense (in Texas Tech) and then you come back and watch UTSA and it’s like you’ve gone back in time 10 years, not being disrespectful. It’s just a more methodical, pro-style formation. Twins formations, two-back structures and then they will spread the field.”
Under first-year UTSA head coach Frank Wilson and first-year offensive coordinator Frank Scelfo, the Roadrunners have switched gears from being an up-tempo spread team under former UTSA head coach Larry Coker to a more methodical, pro-style offense with two strong running backs in the backfield.
“Offensively, they’ve done well,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “They’ve had 340 or some yards a week so they got really good receivers. It is more pro-style and they then slide into the spread and they were more spread last year, not pro-style, so tight ends. So we had to reintroduce our guys to tight ends and how to line up. So very different than what we’ve played and they have guys, two receivers that are very good.”
UTSA is 1-1 to open up its 2016 campaign, with a season opening 26-13 win against Alabama State and a 23-14 loss to Colorado State on Saturday.
“They are downhill running and that’s what I like about this team,” junior Alani (A.J.) Latu said. “Texas Tech last week, they are throwing the ball all day. That’s what I like about [UTSA]. I like putting my nose in there and getting physical and yeah that’s their kind of style, pro-style offense.”
And while UTSA hasn’t peaked in its six years of existence -- going 26-32 over its first five seasons under Coker and now 1-1 in 2016 -- the Roadrunners have some talented athletes on their roster.
UTSA senior running back Jarveon Williams was fourth in Conference USA in rushing last season as a junior, scoring eight touchdowns and carrying the ball 174 times for 1,042 yards, averaging 6.0 yards per play and 94.7 yards per game.
Williams became the program’s first-ever 1,000-yard rusher.
So far through two games this season, the 5-foot-9, 200-pound player hasn’t lived up to expectations, but did suffer an ankle injury in UTSA’s season opener that didn’t allow him to participate in a full-contact practice until the Thursday before UTSA’s game against Colorado State.
Against Colorado State, Williams only had 14 carries for 39 yards in addition to two catches for 28 yards. He is expected to play against ASU on Friday.
In addition to Williams, Graham specifically mentioned junior wide receivers Kerry Thomas Jr. and Marquez McNair as two of UTSA’s weapons on offense.
Thomas was an honorable mention All-Conference USA selection last season after starting all 12 games and having 52 receptions for 541 yards and four touchdowns.
The 6-foot, 205-pound player was the second-leading receiver against Colorado State with four catches for 41 yards, trailing UTSA running back Jalen Rhodes’ career-high five catches for 54 yards out of the backfield.
“They’re really good,” sophomore safety Armand Perry said. “I feel like they are a good team and you know it’s not just going to be a rollover game. We are going to prepare like it’s the Pac-12 championship this week and we had a real good day at practice and we are just focused on us this week.”
Perry compared UTSA’s pro-style offense to Pac-12 foes USC, UCLA and Stanford, but said the Roadrunners offense “just looks kind of vanilla” from the film he has watched so far.
In addition to preparing for ASU’s first pro-style opponent this season, the Sun Devils will be facing a UTSA team that is platooning two quarterbacks, junior quarterback Dalton Sturm and grad transfer quarterback Jared Johnson.
Sturm was a walk-on under Coker and Johnson transferred to UTSA this season after playing at Sam Houston State. In 2015, Johnson was named the Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
Through two games of the 2016 campaign, Sturm is 35-of-48 for 450 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Johnson is 7-for-15 with no interceptions and no touchdowns.
Graham said Sturm is a player who can scramble and hurt defenses with seam patterns and is similar to Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus.
“One of them (Sturm) is an extremely good runner,” Patterson said. “Brings some things to the table with the zone read, quarterback runs and the other one (Johnson), haven’t really seen him enough to have a complete evaluation on him. Seems like when he comes in a little bit he’s also a runner and maybe a little more accurate passer from what we have been able to tell the first two games.”
Perry said with Sturm being more of a scrambler, the key will be to stay vertically sound and make sure secondary players can stick by their man at all times.
Senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes echoed Perry and said some corners tend to lose sight of their receivers when the quarterback starts to scramble and that often leads to players being wide open downfield.
“I expect them to come out doing some play-action shots downfield so you know just trusting my eyes and following my keys and just running around to the ball,” Perry said.
Hayes said Sturm is “really fast and mobile” and while he doesn’t think he compares exactly to Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, he has similar speed and an ability to work the pocket.
To help aid the secondary in coverage will be the speed and physicality of ASU’s defensive line behind sophomore Joseph Wicker. UTSA’s offensive line was last in Conference USA last season in total number of sacks allowed with 44.
“We talked about that this morning (Tuesday),” Wicker said. “They gave up a lot of sacks (last year) and even last game and the game before that they gave up like six or something like that but that’s something we are definitely going to try to do. Get a lot of sacks and rack up our style.”
While Wicker hasn’t put up striking numbers through ASU’s first two games -- nine tackles with none for loss and no sacks -- he sees UTSA as a potential breakout game.
“It definitely can be and that’s what I want, but whatever I can do to win, that’s what I’m going to do,” Wicker said.
Latu could also have the potential to improve after he only had one week to prepare to play Sam linebacker against Texas Tech.
“Got into meetings (last week), sat down and we were ready to go into position meetings and coach Patterson, linebackers coach, comes up to me, said ‘Hey, you’re going to come with me,’” Latu said. “And I was like, ‘What?’ And I walked into the room and he said ‘Alright, you’re playing Mike this week’ and I was like ‘Oh.’ It came out as a surprise, but man anything these guys ask me to do I’m going to do it.”
Wicker said the defense’s goal is to get a shutout to gain confidence for ASU’s next home opponent, California.
While UTSA’s offense is different than either opponent ASU has faced so far, its defense has flashed similarities to Texas Tech.
Graham said UTSA’s defense typically plays in a more 3-3-5 odd front with a little 4-2-5 mixed in as well.
With five defensive backs, the Roadrunners play more of a soft zone coverage, similar to what Texas Tech showed ASU’s defense last week.
“In some ways (they are similar to Texas Tech),” ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said. “They’re kind of a movement team. Whether they are odd or even, they like to move and try to create some fusion, try to create some confusion, try to create some hesitation.”
ASU senior offensive lineman Stephon McCray, who shifted over from playing center to right guard last week, said working against an odd front is slightly different depending on whether he is at center or guard, but it’s something he’s got accustomed to over the years.
“It’s a little bit different guard to center because at center you have a man you are normally going to be working with, with him being head up with you,” McCray said. “At guard it’s a little bit different, but I like to think that it isn’t that big of a change because in the Pac-12 we have a lot of odd fronts, USC, UCLA, Stanford. So it’s something I’m used to being here long.”
Thomsen said ASU will have to be physical at the point of attack and not worry about all the hesitation and confusion UTSA’s defense might cause. UTSA players specifically have a lot of good sub-movement according to Thomsen, meaning when ASU players are trying to stay on a block, UTSA defenders can dip their shoulders to get the advantage.
“They’re bigger than Northern Arizona, they’re bigger and longer,” Thomsen said. “They’re really active. They’re not quite heavy as Texas Tech, Tech had some big men. They have some long, active bodies that can cause problems.”
Heading up the UTSA defense this year is first-year defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Pete Golding. Golding came to UTSA after a two-year stint as an assistant coach at Southern Miss, where he coached the safeties.
“They’re really sound,” ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. “Pete Golding is their defensive coordinator. He’s one of the best, young defensive coordinators in the country. I worked with him at Southern Miss so first-hand I’ve seen obviously his defense at Southern Miss and at the same time, he’s a passionate guy. His players will play very hard for him, very sound, very smart guy so we definitely got a big challenge.”
Thomsen said another challenge for ASU will be getting out of Sun Devil Stadium and playing in its first road game of the season.
“The Alamodome can get very loud,” Thomsen said. “I’ve been in there. Just hearing the communication with the quarterback, just making sure we have the right play. The snap count, making sure we’re getting off on the snap, but the factor of nobody’s cheering for you. That crowd, there’s a lot of energy provided by that home crowd that you can’t underestimate.”
ASU junior running back Kalen Ballage said the team won’t be taking this game lightly and they have been preparing like it's any other Pac-12 matchup. From the film Ballage has watched, he said he knows UTSA has very good athletes on defense and they’re a program that is known to “give teams a run for their money.”
Commanding UTSA’s defense through two games is junior linebacker Josiah Tauaefa. He leads the team with 22 tackles, two tackles for loss and two sacks. In the secondary, senior safety Michael Egwuagu has 19 tackles with one tackle for loss and had a team-high 12 tackles against Colorado State.
Along the trenches, the Roadrunners aren’t a huge sack-threat team and struggle with the inside run. UTSA only tallied 22 sacks last season and while UTSA’s defense had a program-record six sacks against Alabama State in its season opener, against Colorado State, it had zero.
On the ground, Colorado State put up 116 rushing yards against UTSA last Saturday in the first quarter alone. Last season, UTSA was No. 8 in Conference USA in rushing defense, allowing 168.5 yards per game.
“It’s a team we should beat,” ASU senior tight end Kody Kohl said. “I mean there’s no team that should really top us, but we are going to stick to what we do, running the ball and making big plays. If we stick to what we do, we are going to be fine.”