During Wednesday’s practice, Arizona State’s defensive players practiced generating turnovers, a part of the Sun Devils' daily routine.
In individual drills, sophomore safety Armand Perry focused on punching the ball out of an offensive player's hand, while senior Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola practiced leaping in the air to come down with an interception. Despite all of the Sun Devils' efforts, neither forced fumbles or interceptions have been easy to come by for ASU's defense this season.
Through nine games, the Sun Devils have forced just 12 turnovers.
That's a stark contrast from when ASU head coach Todd Graham’s defenses featured pro prospects such as defensive tackle Will Sutton and safety Damarious Randall, both high NFL draft choices who helped the Sun Devils create turnovers. In 2013, ASU collected 33 turnovers in 14 games, and in 2014, the Sun Devils created 27 turnovers in 13 contests.
In each of Graham's first three seasons at ASU, the Sun Devils generated an average of more than 2.0 turnovers per game. The past two seasons however, the Sun Devils have seen a precipitous drop off, averaging 1.60 turnovers per game in 2015 and just 1.30 turnovers per game this season.
Currently, the leaders atop the Pac-12 in turnover differential are the undefeated Washington Huskies with a plus-13 ratio and the resurgent Colorado Buffaloes who own a plus-10 differential and sit alone in first place in the Pac-12 South.
ASU, meanwhile, checks in with a minus-three turnover ratio.
Senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes points to the practice field, where ASU emphasizes creating turnovers daily, as a place where the Sun Devils can and should strive for improvement.
“I just feel like that’s something we’ve got to work on, you know?,” Hayes said. “Just coming out and just turning the ball over. We count how many turnovers we have everyday. Coach Graham always preaches on if you don’t get enough turnovers in practice, you know, we don’t catch interceptions that can effect a game. There’s been games where we had interceptions and we dropped the ball or we had opportunities to recover fumbles and we mishandled the ball, so that’s just something that come from practice. Practice makes perfect, so if you come out there and catch the ball and do all of the little stuff in practice, you’ll be prepared for the game.”
The annual leaders in the Pac-12 in turnover margin since Graham's arrival in 2012 are as follows: Oregon in 2012 (plus-21, finished 12-1), ASU in 2013 (plus-15, finished 10-4), Oregon in 2014 (plus-23, 13-2), Utah in 2015 (plus-13, 10-3) and Washington (plus-13 and currently 8-0).
In the previous four seasons, each team that led the Pac-12 in turnover margin finished with at least 10 wins, and teams that went on to win the Pac-12 in each of those seasons finished with at least a plus-10 turnover margin.
This season, the Sun Devils are on pace to rack up only 17 turnovers, which would by far be the lowest amount of turnovers ASU has amassed since Graham arrived in Tempe.
Freshman cornerback Robbie Robinson, who has been featured in ASU’s nickel package, said that getting to the football with multiple players at a time is an essential part of creating turnovers.
“Just attacking the ball,” Robinson said. “That’s how you create turnovers, population to the ball. The ball’s going to come out someway, somehow. Population to the ball, we’re going to get the ball somehow. Just like in the last game against Oregon, they were driving down the field, you would never guess the running back would have fumbled, but Marcus (Ball) attacking the ball, Marcus picked the ball up and was able to return the ball. So, it’s just everybody getting to the ball. Just get to the ball, read your keys, and you’re going to be there to make the play.”
As a result of a series of injuries this season — especially in the secondary where both Perry and sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr were forced to miss Saturday’s game against Oregon — many young players or inexperienced transfers have been forced into extensive game action throughout the season.
Still, Hayes doesn’t want to use injuries as an excuse for the lack of turnovers being generated in the back end of ASU’s defense.
“Yeah, definitely a lot of new guys coming in and trying to gel together, but like I said, it isn’t a lack of chemistry, we’ve just still got to make plays,” Hayes said. “If there’s a play in front of you, you have to make it, no matter what the situation is. Whether it’s young guys or new guys, you’ve still got to come out there and make the plays, so I wouldn’t use that as an excuse. Us going out there, probably sometimes probably being careless. Like I said, we’ve got to make plays no matter what the situation is.”
The Sun Devils’ defense has had its share of struggles generating momentous turnovers, but its offense has turned the ball over regularly.
Through nine games, ASU’s offense has surrendered 15 turnovers. That number puts ASU on pace for its worst season of protecting the football under Graham, as the Sun Devils are averaging 1.67 turnovers per game. The previous high for an ASU team coached by Graham was last season, when the Sun Devils had 19 turnovers in 13 games.
When ASU was most successful in Graham’s tenure, 2013 and 2014, the Sun Devils' offense committed just over one turnover per game.
In the Pac-12, ASU currently ranks ninth in turnovers committed with 10 interceptions and five fumbles thus far.
When looking at the conference leaders, the Huskies and the Buffaloes, both teams have committed fewer than than 10 turnovers. Washington has allowed six turnovers, while Colorado only has eight this season.
On Saturday against Oregon, ASU allowed 734 total yards of offense, which was the second-worst total in program history. But to make matters worse, ASU only created one turnover in a game in which the Ducks started a true freshman at quarterback, and that was a late fumble recovery by junior safety Marcus Ball.
ASU continues to look for solutions to a lingering turnover problem, and it has an extra week to do so as the Sun Devils don't return to the field until Thursday, Nov. 10 against Utah.
“Continue just to make plays,” Hayes said. “If a play is in front of you, you’ve got to make the play. We gave up a lot of yards, but like I said, we’ve just got to continue to come out every day and just play hard in practice, just work on that. The past is the past, so we’ve got to move on and get ready for Utah.”