In this week’s play anatomy, we’re going to look at senior linebacker Salamo Fiso’s fourth quarter interception against Cal and how ASU’s in-game adjustments coupled with Fiso’s anticipation skills enabled a critical turnover that helped turn the tide of the game in the Sun Devils’ favor.
By the fourth quarter, ASU had displayed a variety of different coverages against Cal’s offensive sets, and we’re going to look specifically at how the Sun Devils’ defended the two by two, double twins set featuring a specific play concept and route pattern that Cal used on three different occasions during the game.
To have a better handle on how Fiso was able to secure an interception, we need to look at how ASU defended Cal’s two by two sets earlier in the game, and why the Bears had success. The first time Cal used this play concept was early in the first quarter when ASU called a man coverage underneath with two safeties over the top responsible for deep halves of the field. Kareem Orr, D.J. Calhoun, Laiu Moeakiola, De'Chavon Hayes and Fiso are responsible for Cal’s five receivers in man coverage, with Moeakiola responsible for the slot receiver on the field side of the formation and Fiso responsible for the running back leaking out of the backfield.
As you’ll see, when Cal’s running back runs a pattern toward the flat, it opens up a hole in the middle of the field for Cal’s No. 2 receiver to the boundary side to run a build route, really a crossing pattern, in front of Calhoun. On this specific play, the receiver is open across the middle, but Davis Webb's pass slips through his hands and ASU avoids giving up a first down.
Playing man coverage against this pattern was dangerous for the Sun Devils though, because with Fiso being forced to bail to the flat and Moeakiola flying back to cover Cal’s field side slot receiver, there’s too much open space for Cal to exploit over the middle and on the field side.
ASU recognizes this, and makes an adjustment. Just a few plays after Cal nearly picked up a first down using this route concept out of a two by two set, the Bears call this play again, and this time, it works. Pre-snap, ASU is preparing to drop into a zone coverage, with its three linebackers responsible for underneath thirds of the field, and four defensive backs responsible for quarters coverage over the top.
We know it’s quarters over the top because Hayes and Orr immediately bail from their pre-snap alignments, while we know it’s zone underneath because of the way Calhoun and Moeakiola drop back toward the sidelines after the snap. In this scenario, Fiso is responsible for covering the middle third of the field, but with Cal once again sending a back leaking toward the wide side, Fiso feels as though he has to respect the route and the wide side of the formation, so he shuffles to his right.
When ASU played man coverage against this set on the first play we showed, Calhoun was responsible for the slot receiver to the boundary side, but in this scenario, with Calhoun dropping into a zone, the slot receiver has space in between Calhoun and Fiso right after the snap, and Webb threads the needle in between the zone defenders. Cal’s receiver takes off, and because Armand Perry can’t get off his block down the field, the play goes for a huge gain.
Cal took advantage of ASU’s zone on that play, and saved the route concept until the fourth quarter when it needed another big gain. Tied 34-34 with 6:21 to play, the Bears’ dial up the same two-by-two set and route concept, but this time, an in-game adjustment ASU made against Cal pays off.
For much of the second half, ASU essentially played a box-and-one defense against Cal receiver Chad Hansen, as the Sun Devils had their top corner, Orr, shadow him everywhere Hansen went. With Orr playing man coverage, and the rest of ASU’s defense in a zone, the Sun Devils were much better prepared to defend against a route pattern that had hurt them earlier in the game.
With Hansen at the top of the screen as a No. 1 receiver, Orr is locked on him in man coverage. The rest of ASU’s defense is playing Cover 3, with three zones underneath for the linebackers and three zones over the top for the remaining defensive backs.
Because Orr is locked on Hansen on the boundary, Calhoun knows he doesn’t have to get the same depth on his zone drop, so he can follow the No. 2 receiver more closely. With Moeakiola responsible for the curl to flat area on the field side of the formation, Fiso knows the running back is taken care of, and he can anticipate Webb targeting the boundary side slot receiver over the middle. Calhoun’s trail of the boundary side slot receiver buys Fiso an extra second to recover from his slide to the right, which he also did on Cal’s explosive play out of this set.
Fiso is sliding because he needs to wait until he can pass the running back off to Moeakiola’s zone, and once this occurs, Fiso uses his anticipation skills to jump back inside. Fiso has seen this play before, and he knows where Webb wants to go with the ball.
Once Cal’s slot receiver creates enough separation from Calhoun, which takes additional time because Calhoun isn’t in a traditional zone drop, Webb uncorks his pass, but he doesn’t see Fiso sliding back into the middle third of the defense in anticipation of the pass. Fiso recognizes exactly what the Bears were trying to target, and he steps in front of the pass to pick up a game-changing interception. After Fiso’s pick, ASU would kick a field goal to take its first lead of the game, and it would never look back.
Ultimately, the success of this play comes down to Fiso’s ability to read where Webb wanted to go with the football, but also the in-game adjustments ASU made to Cal’s 2 by 2 set, and specifically, how that adjustment enabled success against this route pattern.
The first time we saw this play, ASU was in man coverage underneath, and Calhoun wasn’t quick enough to handle the boundary side slot receiver with Fiso bailing to the flat to pick up the running back.
The second time Cal ran this play, ASU was in quarters over the top with three defenders underneath, and because Calhoun had to take additional steps to get to his zone drop, it opened up a wider window for Webb and the Bears to notch an explosive play.
The third time Cal ran this play, though, Calhoun didn’t have to get depth on his zone drop, because the outside receiver on his side was Hansen, and he knew if the boundary side slot receiver broke inside, that Orr was responsible for Hansen. Because Calhoun is able to follow the play more closely, it tightens down the passing window and throws off the Bears’ timing.
Fiso has an opportunity to pass off the running back to Moeakiola, slide back into the middle third, and come up with an interception only a savvy veteran who recognizes route combinations is likely to make.