One aspect of Arizona State’s defense that has struggled this season is its secondary, which currently ranks last in the nation with 396.4 passing yards allowed per game.
While the Sun Devils' defense is on pace to give up nearly 400 passing yards per game this year, ASU has been tasked with stopping the top two passing offenses in the country already with contests against Texas Tech (547.8 yards per game) and Cal (428.6 yards per game).
The worst passing defense over the last 10-plus seasons in college football belongs to the 2014 Cal Bears, which surrendered more than 366 passing yards per game, but the only remaining Air Raid opponent on ASU's schedule is Washington State on Oct. 22, so the Sun Devils should have an opportunity to improve their overall standing.
Air Raid offenses spread out a defense and put defensive backs into one-on-one situations on the perimeter. ASU has struggled in those scenarios this season as bubble screens and quick outs have exposed weaknesses in the Sun Devils' tackling.
“You try to put people in the open field and again, man, the talent that you face in this league, that's why you see all the spread offenses,” Patterson said. “Throw a negative yardage route, it's just one-on-one tackling so we try to create population to the ball carrier but the style of offenses can really put you in compromising situations when they just throw the ball to the perimeter, you've got to make the play one-on-one."
Missed tackles, consistently in the open field and in one-on-one situations, have plagued ASU's secondary to this point.
On two key USC touchdowns Saturday, running back Justin Davis and wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster evaded tacklers in the open field as a result of poor angles and bad techniques from ASU's defensive backs.
“It’s just an open field tackle,” sophomore safety Armand Perry said. “There’s different types of tackles, you know. Tracking tackles, coming at angles. Some of the tackles being missed were simply open field tackles. That’s just basically keeping your eyes disciplined, keeping your leverage and just coming up and making a sound tackle. Every sound tackle doesn’t have to be a big hit and when you’re in space like that, sometimes just getting the ball down is the best thing to do.”
For a critical part of head coach Todd Graham and Keith Patterson's tenure, ASU had the luxury of a playmaking safety, Damarious Randall, who earned a reputation as an outstanding solo tackler in space.
With so much inexperience on the back end of ASU's defense, Patterson said the Sun Devils are trying to come up with ways that put the Sun Devils' players in better positions to execute the team's scheme.
"Some of it is technique, some of it is just effort and just ability to make plays in space,” Patterson said. “Where I think we got really spoiled watching Damarious (Randall) just make it look like it was nothing. Obviously he was a first round draft pick so he kind of just made it look so easy at times. Throw it out here, run it out here, tackle this guy and he's down. We're trying to be creative and trying to help those guys with some different things but we've just got to execute at a higher level."
With how young ASU is in its secondary, tackling fundamentals will remain work in progress as the coaching staff hopes to develop more technique throughout the year. Additionally, Patterson said finding a consistent rotation for its personnel will only benefit the Sun Devils' overall defensive capabilities.
"You want guys who will basically just take care of your responsibility," Patterson said. "We put a lot of stress on our secondary with pressure so again you've just got to get guys who are dependable that are going to communicate. Again, it's just learning to function as a unit and that's hard to do when it's different people all the time."
On Saturday, ASU used four different Bandit safeties, including starter and junior J'Marcus Rhodes, junior James Johnson, senior Laiu Moeakiola and junior Chad Adams. With a revolving door at the position against USC, the Sun Devils never found the right mix of personnel, but Perry said the Sun Devils aren't deterred by their struggles just yet.
“Just picking them up,” Perry said. “At the end of the day, we’re 4-1. We still have a chance to win out, win the South and the Pac-12. I mean, we’re not really thinking negative. It was a tough loss, but stuff like that, that’s how you really learn who you are as a team. We’re just going to bounce back.”
After redshirt freshman Sam Darnold sliced through ASU's secondary for 352 yards and three touchdowns, Perry says it’s time to bounce back against a player many consider the best signal-caller the Sun Devils will face all season in UCLA sophomore Josh Rosen.
“It’s a wake up call,” Perry said. “It’s time to regroup, correct some things, and bounce back against UCLA.”null