Even though Arizona State's quarterback position continues to be ravaged by injuries, the Sun Devils bounced back and overcame other necessary personnel adjustments in their most complete effort of the season Saturday.
In a 23-20 victory over UCLA, ASU's defense didn't come out unscathed as it had to adjust on the fly without its best cover corner, sophomore Kareem Orr, who injured his ankle while colliding on an attempt to block a field goal with junior Maurice Chandler in the first half.
Chandler’s momentum caused Orr’s ankle to bend awkwardly, which knocked him out the rest of the game. Orr was mirroring UCLA receiver Kenneth Walker before he went down, which was a specific adjustment ASU made defensively against the Bruins.
In Orr's place, ASU inserted senior De'Chavon Hayes, who intercepted a third quarter pass before having to come out of the game in the fourth quarter due to cramping or illness, according to ASU head coach Todd Graham.
Hayes came off the bench Saturday because junior college transfer Maurice Chandler earned the first start of his career at cornerback. Prior to Saturday, Hayes had started each game for the Sun Devils, but ASU replaced him with Chandler who has struggled to stay healthy this year.
“I thought they (ASU's secondary) did a great job,” Graham said. “Even though there were some plays that we’d like to eliminate, I thought we had some nice tackles. I thought we did some nice things there, we got takeaways and the things we needed to do. We’re just trying to find that balance of what group. And I felt like we were just a few spots off.”
Against Northern Arizona in ASU's season opener, Graham had junior Marcus Ball starting at Spur linebacker, with the plan was to move senior Laiu Moeakiola back to Bandit safety to help Moeakiola avoid less contact closer to the line of scrimmage. However, six weeks in, they have flipped roles.
Now, Ball is lined up at Bandit while Moeakiola helps stabilize the defense at his more natural spot of Spur. Flipping their spots around did wonders for ASU's defense both in the front and back end against the Bruins.
In his first start of the season at Bandit, Ball amassed 10 tackles on his way to being named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. However, it wasn’t a perfect game for Ball.
There were multiple occasions throughout the game in which Ball either missed tackles or blew an assignment in coverage, which is still is a work in progress for ASU's secondary.
Graham had positive takeaways for most of ASU's secondary on Monday, and offered praise for Hayes, Chandler and even graduate transfer Bryson Echols who came in for relief duty after Hayes had to leave in the fourth quarter. Graham also continued to laud the performance of freshman cornerback Robbie Robinson, who starts in ASU’s nickel package and recorded his first career interception as time expired Saturday.
“I think Marcus (Ball) played great, Gump Hayes played outstanding," Graham said. "I thought Mo (Chandler), for his first game did a good job, as well as I thought Bryson Echols did a good job coming off the bench. We lost Kareem (Orr) there in the first quarter and then in the fourth quarter, (Hayes) was cramping or sick and so we lost him. We had some guys that really needed to step up and I was really proud of Robbie (Robinson). Robbie’s done a great job for us all year playing and starting in our nickel package and getting his first interception I was really proud of him as well.”
ASU's passing defense was under duress for most of Saturday night because UCLA was forced to abandon its run game. The Bruins finished with negative one rushing yard on the evening, and passed on 31 of its final 32 offensive plays.
The Bruins' struggles were due in part to a shakeup ASU made along its defensive front, which included a heavier personnel grouping. In one particular package, ASU aligned junior Tashon Smallwood at defensive end, sophomore Renell Wren and senior Viliami Latu inside, and sophomore Joseph Wicker at Devil backer.
The change added more mass to the Sun Devils’ front line, which helped clog open lanes for UCLA and turned the Bruins into a one-dimensional offense.
“I was proud of Tashon (Smallwood)," Graham said. "We asked Tashon to kick out to end for a little bit, did some nice things there. Thought Renell Wren played his best football game since he’s been here. He can be dominant and just needs to continue to get better. Lots of positive things there with the personnel guys on defense.”
News and notes
- ASU's matchup with Washington State is scheduled to kick off in Sun Devil Stadium on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. The last time the Sun Devils played all of their home games in the evening was 2007, when they played eight home games and finished 7-1.
- Graham continued his praise for Colorado head coach Mike Macintyre on Monday. Graham said that Colorado’s head coach has done a great job of developing his players, and all the youth they put on the field early in MacIntyre's tenure is now experienced.
- Graham said that he "fully intends" to have sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins back this week and said he hoped to have Wilkins practicing by Thursday.
- Wilkins’ backup, redshirt freshman Brady White, is out for the season after leaving the game halfway through the fourth quarter with an apparent foot injury.
- ASU is ranked No. 24 in the Coaches’ Poll, while they are not ranked in the AP Poll after receiving 53 votes for the top 25. Only Georgia, which received 59 votes, received more votes and remained unranked.