Open-field tackling has been a glaring issue for Arizona State this season, with its most recent loss against Colorado showcasing its players’ lack of fundamental technique, according to ASU head coach Todd Graham.
In ASU’s 40-16 loss to the Buffaloes on Saturday, ASU players were taking bad angles and had bad technique in a game that saw the front seven gassed on multiple occasions with the combination of the altitude and the Buffaloes' high-tempo offense.
Graham said Monday much of ASU’s tackling struggles were due to lack of fundamentals and to fix that, coaches have to do a better job of preparing players, especially the young defensive players who have to improve their ability to tackle in space.
“It was obviously very frustrating, but just same thing, we probably came off our best week tackling so we had our best performance followed by our worst performance as far as tackling,” Graham said.
The Sun Devils put out a good tackling performance in their 23-20 win over UCLA with minor errors in the backfield, but the Bruins had a lack of firepower at skill positions.
Against Colorado, a combination of bad tackling and tired players competing in a higher altitude resulted in a rough defensive showing. ASU sophomore defensive lineman Joseph Wicker said the defense wasn’t prepared and had not practiced for the tempo offense the Buffaloes ran from the start of Saturday’s game.
“I feel like if we were to practice tempo like we are now we would have been fine,” Wicker said. “It was just fast and people were very tired and needed a break a lot throughout the game.
“No one is going to go out there and not give effort. That’s not what happens. People are going to give effort. Just watch our last few games. Just watch the UCLA game. They do different things and we weren’t prepared as far as what they do and it happens.”
One of the more crucial plays in ASU’s loss to Colorado resulted from a missed tackle by sophomore safety Armand Perry. While Perry was playing hurt prior to the play, he had a bad missed tackle during Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay’s 75-yard touchdown run from the first play of scrimmage in the second half to put Colorado up 30-10.
“I don’t feel like it’s a technique problem,” ASU senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes said about ASU’s tackling problems. “I feel like guys go out there just not mentality focused. Just going through the motions so that’s something we have to limit. We got to go out there and make a play and be in position to make a play.”
Even earlier in the game, Colorado senior quarterback Sefo Liufau evaded redshirt freshman defensive lineman George Lea and then threw the ball to junior wide receiver Bryce Bobo who had slipped Hayes' coverage for a 66-yard completion to the 10-yard line early in the second quarter.
ASU senior linebacker Salamo Fiso quit on a play two plays after that because he was gassed on the keeper that Liufau scored on, which made the score 17-10 with 9:11 left in the second quarter.
“I’m not going to make no excuses,” Hayes said. “From my point of view I don’t feel like the altitude affected me at all. The first series when they went tempo, we were a little tired, but I’m not going to say the altitude affected us. They just came out and physically ran the ball against us."
To be more prepared for the last five games of the season, Wicker said ASU has started practicing tackling more in tempo periods and in live team settings to help simulate what it’s like on Saturdays.
“It just starts at practice,” junior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said. “We have to do it at practice. We haven’t been practicing well, we haven’t been focusing on it and that’s on us. We have to keep that in mind with everything we do and apply it.”
ASU starts off practice every day working on tackling, however the fundamental skills players practice during the week haven’t been translating over to games.
“We spend almost half our individual time every day tackling,” Graham said. “We start off our practice with it.”
Graham said a lot of the missed tackles had to do with poor tracking skills and the No. 1 factor overall is communication between players on the back end.
“That’s all we need to work on," Hayes said. "We were working on it all year, but that’s something we can’t do. We can’t go out there and miss tackles because we gave up a lot of plays throughout the season on missed tackles so that’s something we just got to continue to work on and get better.”
ASU secondary coach T.J. Rushing said a big thing on Saturday was that it wasn’t just players in one-on-one situations who missed tackles, it was multiple players missing tackles on multiple plays and that’s where the issue really stems from.
“You watch anybody play and they are missing tackles,” Rushing said. “It’s just we end up missing them in the wrong spots. No one else is there to help us out. Whatever. Perfect storm. I’m not making excuses for our guys, we have to get better.”