Defensive changes help spur Sun Devils to crucial bounce-back win

Some key defensive adjustments contributed to a remarkable Arizona State win over UCLA Saturday in Tempe.

For the second season in a row, Keith Patterson's change of perspective enhanced Arizona State's season outlook. 

After calling the defense from field level on the sidelines during the first four games of the season, the Sun Devils' defensive coordinator elected to move up to the press box for Saturday's 23-20 win over UCLA. 

Last year, Patterson moved from the press box to the field in ASU's 38-23 win over UCLA the Rose Bowl one week after the Sun Devils were dismantled by USC 42-14 at Sun Devil Stadium. 

The result of Patterson's shift was ASU's best defensive performance against a legitimate opponent all season, a win which moved the Sun Devils to 5-1 and puts them in control of their own destiny in the Pac-12 South. 

The view from the top is nice, and ASU is now tied for the Pac-12 South lead with Utah and Colorado. 

Patterson's vantage changed even before Saturday, though. 

ASU had its most creative schematic adjustment of the season on defense and made several key personnel changes that contributed to its crucial win over the division rival. Patterson and ASU head coach Todd Graham deserve the credit for the changes that helped enable the victory. 

It started in the secondary, where the Sun Devils elected to move junior Marcus Ball to Bandit, a position they had little success at through the first five games. Ball led the Sun Devils with 10 tackles, played physically, and had a key interception of UCLA sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen early in the fourth quarter. Ball returned the interception 22 yards to the UCLA 32-yard line and led to ASU's final points of the game, a field goal that ultimately proved to be the difference in the game. 

At the cornerback spot opposite sophomore Kareem Orr, ASU started junior Maurice Chandler. He hadn't played any meaningful reps in his career before getting the start, and Chandler wound up with seven tackles and had good coverage on a number of reps. Even after Orr went down with a leg injury early in the second quarter and senior De'Chavon Hayes replaced him, the team's cornerbacks did reasonably well with Chandler still on the field. 

Up front, ASU had a game plan that was different than we'd seen all season. A week after getting blown off the football by USC at the line of scrimmage, the Sun Devils went to a heavier defensive line that saw junior Tashon Smallwood move outside at times to play defensive end. It's a position he hasn't played at all in his ASU career, but it enabled sophomore Renell Wren to play effectively inside next to senior Viliami Latu at tackle. With sophomore Joseph Wicker serving as the bookend to Smallwood, the Sun Devils often had four 270-plus pound players along its defensive front. 

The result? A UCLA team that has struggled to run the ball this season had its most embarrassing effort to date, a net -1 rushing yards on 23 attempts. The Bruins were so inept at running the ball that they threw it their last 27 plays from scrimmage. 

"I just went to Tashon this week, and you know Tashon is not a defensive end, he's a three-technique," Graham said. "But I said 'hey you're athletic enough to do this and I think it'll help and make us better, and I think it was big, they absolutely could not run the ball. Just could not run the ball at all. And that had a lot to do with those front four guys annihilating that line of scrimmage.

"So what kind of happened is that they were having to block the tight ends on Jojo and Tashon and that was a tall order. Once we got it where it was one-dimensional then you can start getting some second and longs and start playing some nickel and start dialing them up. Again, I thought Coach Patterson did a great job."

Sure, the Bruins threw for 444 yards in the game and ASU continues to be last in in the country in passing defense. But it took 54 pass attempts to do it, and along with that came three costly interceptions that as much as anything else proved to be the difference in the game. ASU averaged just 3.8 yards-per-play offensively, but generated the turnovers and sacks -- five in this game -- that had been missing earlier in the season. When ASU's defense has been effective in the Todd Graham-era, it has almost always included a lot of turnovers and sacks.

"We had a nice balance of communication and I think it helped us having someone up in the box," Graham said. "I had both of our coordinators up in the box and I think it helped tremendously. Maurice Chandler also played great and I am so proud of everyone stepping up. We are really getting back to Sun Devil defensive football by getting TFLs, sacks and putting the heat on. People are going to talk about the yards, but everyone here tonight knows that our defense got after one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”

Rosen isn't going to remember this contest fondly, and that's even though he had 400 passing yards and went 24-of-43 on the night with two touchdowns and one interception. He was sacked three times on the night and hit a number of other times. By the time the night was over, Rosen had no fewer than three injuries. He'd been knocked out of the lineup -- ending up in the locker room before halftime -- in the first half with a right leg injury only to return in the third quarter. But then he suffered several more injuries, including a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter on a 9-yard loss by ASU junior Koron Crump, who had two sacks on the night. 

It was nearly a head-shoulder-knees-and-toes night of injuries for Rosen, and one he'll not soon forget. 

“He is beat up," UCLA coach Jim Mora said. "He has taken some horrible hits because we cannot protect for him."

Patterson's defensive moves not only helped keep the Bruins from having any semblance of a run game, but it allowed his players to tee off on Rosen and his backup, fifth-year senior Mike Fafaul, who completed just 3-of-11 passes for 44 yards. Fafaul also threw two costly interceptions and was sacked twice. 

The amount of time Rosen wasn't able to be on the field, as much as anything, contributed to the Sun Devils' ability to emerge with the win. 

“They played their butt off out there," Fafaul said. "I felt like they dialed up some pretty complex blitzes. Hats off to them, they really played well. We just didn’t play up to our standard and I think that’s the main reason why at the end of the day we lost the game.”

Early in the third quarter with the scored tied 3-3, Hayes intercepted Fafaul and returned the ball 37 yards to the UCLA 4-yard line. From there the Sun Devils got a field goal to take a 6-3 lead, the first of 17 points they would have in the third quarter. 

With the Sun Devils leading 20-13, Ball intercepted Rosen upon his return to the game, which ultimately led to ASU's final points of the game and gave it a 23-13 lead it wouldn't relinquish. 

“The first turning point was Gump on the interception," Ball said. "But the second half interception was a big play. Coach Graham kept telling me to keep going, keep pushing. I saw the ball in the air and made a play on it. I was just doing my job, doing my assignment, but God had his hand on me tonight.

“We had a lot of guys come together today when our players went down. We knew it was going to be a defensive game, but we stepped up and played tremendously. Every week we have missed assignments, but we kept our focus and came up with the win.”

That's a nice look for the Sun Devils, a team that now will be able to solidify its status as Pac-12 South front-runner with a win at Colorado on Saturday. They may have to do that with the quarterback who started camp fourth on the depth chart. But that's a story for another day -- perhaps every other day this week. 

But this day? It's dedicated to Patterson and the Sun Devil defense, at least here. 

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