Following Arizona State's 49-26 loss on Senior Night against No. 15 Utah, Sun Devils' head coach Todd Graham perfectly summarized his team's defensive performance after its fourth consecutive loss.
“We self-destructed,” Graham said.
After jumping out to a promising 13-0 lead, the Sun Devils’ defense finally picked up where it left off in a 54-35 loss against Oregon and was outscored 49-13 the rest of the way.
In the final three quarters of Thursday's game, Utah was able to amass 15 explosive plays after not registering a single one in the first 15 minutes of action.
A lack of wrapping up on tackles and coverage breakdowns in the secondary continue plague the Sun Devils week after week.
As junior Bandit safety Marcus Ball alluded to, the self-inflicted, seemingly avoidable wounds crushed ASU's chances throughout the second half against Utah.
“I think we did a lot of things that were self-inflicted,” Ball said. “We had a lot of self-inflicted wounds. They definitely had a good game plan. They had a good game plan and they stuck to it. They did some things, you know scheme and stuff, but I think down the stretch we had some self-inflicted wounds that cost us.”
Those self-inflicted wounds Ball spoke about reared their head on multiple occasions against the Utes in crucial situations.
When Utah finally started to solve ASU’s defense within the first few moments of the second quarter, junior quarterback Troy Williams found sophomore wide receiver Raelon Singleton for a 64-yard touchdown over the head of sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr. From there, the floodgates opened up for the Utes against the Sun Devils' defense.
On the play, Orr was supposed to play off the line of scrimmage with a deep Cover 4 zone responsibility, but instead he pressed up on Singleton. Without jamming Singleton at the line of scrimmage, Orr was blown by on a vertical route along the Utah sideline.
Those sorts of errors, which revolve around communication and assignment integrity within the secondary, continue to be a weekly occurrence for ASU.
“We go into a game with a specific plan and we got guys playing really well,” Graham said. “Marcus Ball has played really well. I think Kareem (Orr) for the most part has played well. He gave up one play tonight and it happened to be a big-time touchdown and he was in the wrong coverage. He was supposed to be off and we have to do a better job communicating.”
In the last three games alone against Washington State, Oregon and Utah, ASU has allowed 40 plays of 15 or more yards, which is an average of more than 13 per contest during that span.
Additionally, the Sun Devils have surrendered 15 touchdowns on plays of 30-plus yards this season, which is the worst mark of any FBS team.
With ASU struggling to defend the pass, Graham’s high-pressure schemes have been toned down to reduce one-on-one matchups for the Sun Devils' defensive backs.
Instead of using exotic blitzes and stunts to generate consistent duress on opposing quarterbacks, ASU has recently utilized multiple arrays of zone coverages designed to put the Sun Devils' secondary in less man-to-man conflicts.
However, the adjustment has yet to have a positive effect on ASU’s defensive output. The Sun Devils’ defense has been more conservative than aggressive, but the adjustment to playing more zone has led to a multitude of mental errors.
10 gams into the season, the 2016 Sun Devils' defense is on pace to generate the fewest amount of turnovers in the Graham era. To date, ASU has only accumulated 12 total turnovers, and because Graham has never had a season in Tempe without ASU generating at least 20 turnovers, ASU's four-year streak of forcing at least 20 turnovers is now in serious jeopardy.
“We’ve gone away from being a high-pressure team and when you do that you have more calls and things like that and kind of going through a transition making errors like that, but in every game we have played very inconsistent in at least one corner position and I think Laiu (Moeakiola) has had as good of a year as he's been here," Graham said. "So just as a unit we have not played well and one of the things that really hurts you is you are going to give up, people are going to bust a tackle and you got to tackle it."
When diagnosing the defense’s performance against the Utes, Graham pointed to the amount of missed tackles ASU had while trying to wrap up junior quarterback Troy Williams, who finished 21-for-37 with four touchdowns.
There were plenty of opportunities for an ASU defender to bring down Williams behind the line of scrimmage for sacks, but attempting to tackle the mobile signal-caller backfired and open receivers created more separation and allowed for Williams to average 14.1 yards per completion.
The Sun Devils' defense not only failed to stop Williams, but it failed to stop the entire Utes' offense after the first quarter. Over the final three quarters, Utah accumulated 10.7 yards per play.
“The quarterback running around the pocket, we just kept missing tackles,” Graham said. “We got him and couldn’t keep him corralled up there and then the first half they threw the ball over top of us on one which we just get run by on and they threw a corner route that they actually did pretty well on and still threw the ball over the top of us and it was all big plays that you give up so it was frustrating.”
After falling to Utah on Thursday, ASU will now have to travel on the road to Seattle to play No. 4 Washington and to Tucson to face Arizona after playing their final home game of 2016 inside Sun Devil Stadium.
“Frustrating," Graham said. "We’ve had our misfortunes this year and we have the opportunity next week to play the No. 4 ranked team in the country and then also win the Territorial Cup so we have a lot to play for and we have a lot to coach for."