Cole Elsasser/USA Today Sports

ASU loss against Oregon reveals cracks in defensive foundation

Arizona State's defense structurally failed again in its 54-35 loss to Oregon, revealing more than ever the problems that began years ago.

EUGENE, Oregon -- Todd Graham erected his Arizona State program at breakneck speed, a shiny structure that is now leaning and swaying, at risk of collapse because its defensive foundation wasn't solidly drilled into bedrock. 

The Sun Devils won games in a hurry early in Graham's tenure, reeling off eight, 10 and 10 wins in his first three seasons behind some of the most aggressive defensive play ever seen in the Pac-12. ASU had more sacks, tackles for loss, three-and-outs, and turnovers generated than its conference peers in those early years. 

As ASU built up its defensive profile skyward though, it forgot about the underpinning reason for its success. 

The Sun Devils were good enough on defense to play the preferred style of Graham because of their ability to cover and tackle. They featured four all-league defensive backs in those 2013-2014 seasons, their first back-to-back 10 win seasons in history. 

But long-rooted problems buried well below the surface were always there, eroding the Sun Devils from their base. 

Saturday's 54-35 loss to Oregon is just the latest jolt, the most recent cracks in the building. The absence of four defensive starters from their lineup -- senior linebacker Salamo Fiso (knee), junior linebacker Christian Sam (ankle), sophomore field safety Armand Perry (turf toe) and sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr (knee) -- only further revealed the structural issues that threaten to crash their once-glinting tower to the ground. 

The real problem is that the Sun Devils don't have capable players behind their injured starters, and seemingly no ability to tweak their approach in their absence. Ultimately, that's not on the players, that's on the coaches and specifically Graham himself. 

Even as Graham spent the first three years of his tenure working with defensive backs on a daily basis in practice, the Sun Devils were failing to add any players to their secondary in those three recruiting classes -- 2012, 2013 and 2014 -- who would ultimately be able to play cornerback or field safety in their scheme. All of the players they added were Bandit and Spur prospects, or guys they thought would be able to handle the stressful coverage situations but ultimately couldn't. 

So, when Perry -- a 2014 signee -- and Orr -- a 2015 signee -- were playing catch with one another on the sideline in street clothes on the field at Autzen Stadium prior to Saturday's game, there were no players who have been developed on the roster over a multi-year period able to play in their stead. The result was utterly predictable. 

Injuries, therefore, didn't really cause the Sun Devils' problems as much as revealed failings long in the works. 

Those mistakes started well before the Sun Devils gave up 734 yards of total offense to the Ducks -- their second worst defensive performance ever -- without the services of Perry and Orr. They started before the two previous losses as well, and even prior to the team finishing last in total defense in 2016 as it stumbled to a 6-7 record. 

Ultimately, it's not really senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes' problem that he's not the answer for the Sun Devils at the position. A junior college player recruited to play running back, Hayes didn't play any reps at the position until late last year. But there he was starting for ASU at cornerback on Saturday, just as he has often this season. First-year junior college transfer Maurice Chandler started at the cornerback spot opposite Hayes, despite hardly practicing in the spring or preseason camp due to injuries. Starting junior Bandit Marcus Ball hasn't played the position at all in his ASU career until a few games ago, and starting junior field safety J'Marcus Rhodes -- in his first season in Tempe -- hadn't played the position once before Saturday. 

So, yeah, the Sun Devils didn't tackle well, they didn't cover well, and the result wasn't one they'll want to remember. 

"At the end of the day, it was very difficult not having key players on defense," Graham said. "We couldn't communicate. We had a lot of errors and things like that and then a lot of it was things they were doing a good job. We tackled poorly, but we played poor on defense."

A week or so ago, ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson lamented an inability to have continuity in the team's secondary. But they don't even have enough talented and experienced players that it would matter anyway beyond their top two or three starters. 

The result of that is a game like Saturday, when Oregon freshman quarterback Justin Herbert completed 31-of-41 passes (75.6 percent) for 489 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. 

The result is a three-game losing streak that has seen ASU opponents complete 96-of-136 pass attempts (76.8 percent) for 1,152 yards (384 yards per game) with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. 

Other than in ASU's loss to Colorado, Graham has been pleased by his team's run defense. But it hardly matters when the opponent doesn't even need to run the football at all -- and Oregon did well on the ground in addition to its success via the air, with 245 rushing yards on 46 carries (5.3 yards per carry). 

ASU is really challenged on offense, with fourth-string quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole getting his first career start as a true freshman against the Ducks, and a slew of other injuries beyond the Sun Devils other three scholarship signal callers. Senior left guard Stephon McCray was knocked out of action in the first quarter, joining starting sophomore guard Sam Jones on the bench. ASU leading rusher Demario Richard didn't play due to an undisclosed injury that limited him last week, and senior leading receiver Tim White only played on special teams due to injury. One of the team's second-string wide receivers, junior Cameron Smith, didn't play at all. 

But ASU still managed 468 yards from scrimmage on offense and had 35 points in a road game against an Oregon team that is among the worst defenses nationally. It's just, the Sun Devils weren't able to stop the Ducks almost at all other than on a few defensive series in the third quarter when they made an adjustment to an odd-front. 

Oregon won the turnover battle 3-1, with Sterling-Cole throwing three interceptions and ASU getting a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter that helped keep it in the game. 

But it was a game the Sun Devils really had no business being in anyway because their defense can't get any stops or keep an opponent from completing roughly three-quarters of its pass attempts. 

The lessons shouldn't have come through these experiences for Graham, a coach who is the architect of a defense now threatening to topple everything he's built in Tempe. 


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