Column: Sun Devils in troubled waters defensively

Despite taking a different approach on defense Thursday, Arizona State had an all-too-familiar result which now puts the prospects of a bowl game very much in jeopardy

History tends to repeat itself. 

In his first season as Arizona State's head coach, Todd Graham saw his team race out to a 5-1 start only to have it be followed by a four-game losing streak, culminating with a 38-17 defeat to USC on November 10, 2012. 

Thursday marked the four year anniversary of that loss to the Trojans. With a 49-26 loss to Utah, the 2016 Sun Devils have the same record as that initial Graham team -- 5-5 overall and sitting on a four-game losing streak.

This time though, it feels so much different. 

In 2012 the Sun Devils were in a honeymoon phase under Graham, a coach who eventually out-performed expectations that season. ASU rebounded from the four-game skid with wins over Washington State and Arizona to end the regular season and a dominant 62-28 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl win over Navy to finish the season 8-4. 

It turned into a feel good finish to a season that provided a lot of promise for the future. Graham and the Sun Devils made good on that promise a year later with a 10-win campaign and Pac-12 South title, and for good measure followed it up with another 10-win season in 2014. 

This year's four game losing streak is one that will likely continue for at least another week. The Sun Devils travel to No. 4 Washington on Saturday, an opponent which should provide another dose of pain to a program clearly already hurting. 

The last time ASU lost five straight games? That was in 2011, when then-coach Dennis Erickson saw his team start the season 5-1 -- the same as this ASU did this year under Graham -- only to then go winless in November and December and lose its final five games before he was shown the door. A theme of that season? Injuries. Key defensive starters Brandon Magee and Omar Bolden -- in attendance on Thursday -- were knocked out for the year before the season had even begun. 

Right now it looks like the Sun Devils will lose five straight games and be 5-6 a week from now, which would put them in position of needing to beat Arizona on the road in the Territorial Cup to achieve a .500 regular season record and bowl eligibility. 

Calling this year a disappointment for ASU would be an understatement at this point, particularly on the heels of a 6-7 2015 season that frayed the nerves of a fanbase so thrilled by the first three years of Graham's tenure. 

Now, we're rapidly approaching numbness.

It's not so much that ASU is losing, but it's how inept it has been defensively in those games. 

Utah needed just 59 plays from scrimmage to score 49 points, an 8.4 yards-per-play average. A defense that entered the game giving up 36.6 points just got worse, and did so against an offense that was averaging just 29.2 points per game. 

ASU abandoned its bread-and-butter blitz-heavy approach in this game, instead playing a quarters zone throughout and being much more measured with its pressures. It's one of the most conservative schemes that can be run, but it didn't change the result. 

"The plan was to keep everything inside and in front," Graham said. "We line up and blow three coverages. We were supposed to be playing off and we were playing bump and that’s our responsibility. I don’t understand how that happens, but you know, our goal going into the game was keep the ball in front of us. We played Cover 4 most of the night so that was frustrating. We just played very poorly on the backend."

It's nothing new. Whether they've played ultra-aggressive with a majority of Cover 0 and Cover 1 behind six man pressures, or in-between with a blend of Cover 1 and Cover 3, or what should be very safe by splitting the field into quarters and focusing on preventing big play from happening, they've been inadequate. 

The Sun Devils are giving up a nation-worst 1.5 touchdown plays per game of 30-plus yards. On Thursday that was sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr playing the wrong technique on a 64-yard touchdown reception to sophomore Raelon Singleton. It was senior running back Joe Williams exploiting missed tackles and bad pursuit angles on an 82-yard touchdown run.

And for good measure, ASU had two other breakdowns on touchdown plays. Junior cornerback Maurice Chandler getting beaten on a 27 yard completion in the corner of the end zone and senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes nowhere to be found on a 17 yards pass to Singleton for the second of his three touchdowns on the night. Entering the game, Singleton only had one touchdown catch this season. 

Utah quarterback Troy Williams completed 21 of 37 passes for 296 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. It was the best passing performance by a Utah quarterback since Travis Wilson had 297 yards against ASU last season. The Sun Devils have been Utah's doormat the last two seasons after an 11-game ASU win streak. 

"We go into a game with a specific plan and we got guys playing really well," Graham said. "(Junior safety) Marcus Ball has played really well. I think Kareem 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 and sometimes I mean, what we’ve done....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 (senior safety) Laiu (Moeakiola) has had as good of a year as he's been here 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 you miss those tackles and it goes 70 yards, those one-play touchdowns are what kills you."

The Sun Devils entered Thursday allowing a nation-worst 397.6 passing yards per game one year after finishing last in the category. They're on pace to be the worst passion defense in NCAA Division I history, a mark currently held by Cal at 366.7 in 2014. 

The worst part is that it's Graham's purported area of expertise that is crippling the Sun Devils. He spent the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons working with ASU's defensive backs on a daily basis in practice, but didn't sign any recruits in those three years who are now able to play the cornerback and field safety positions. 

There's really only so many coverages they can play, and they're not executing any of them effectively. So whether it's talent evaluation and acquisition, or player development, or schematic design and play calling, or some combination thereof, the blame has to fall at Graham's feet. 

In Graham the Sun Devils have a coach who has done a great job of adding discipline, integrity and well roundedness to the ASU program. His players have a much higher graduation rate, grade point average, and classroom attendance than the years before he arrived. The program has secured its future through the reinvention of Sun Devil Stadium and its associated Student Athlete Facility which will open next year. He's raised a lot of money and set ASU up well for the future.

And the Sun Devils have played a style of defense that worked earlier in his tenure, with a lot of sacks, tackles for loss and a turnover rate that was at or near the top of the Pac-12. ASU forced more three-and-outs than anyone in the league, and though it gave up some big plays as a reality of its pressure-oriented scheme, it wasn't a defensive sieve. That can no longer be said, and now, it's all Graham's players. The great success he achieved early in his tenure was primarily with players he inherited, particularly in the defensive backfield, save one really great talent, Damarious Randall. 

"We've got to get better, that's it," Graham said. "I don't know how to answer [questions about our inability to execute or scheme to solve the problems]. I thought we needed to pressure less. Our production and sacks and [tackles-for-loss] have gone way down and we still have the same issues with big plays so that’s a little frustrating.

"They whipped us up front is what my impression was just watching the game and we had to do some innovative things and we were in the game. They can’t run the ball at all and then we give up a 70-yard touchdown because we can't tackle. You know missed three tackles on the play and that was frustrating." 

It's not like the defense is the only place ASU's struggling, that much is sure.

A young offensive line that is starting several players forced into action due to injuries gave up an unheard of 11 sacks and 22 tackles-for-loss to the Utes. The group was beaten at the point of attack, with ASU only able to manage 41 yards rushing, led by junior Kalen Ballage with 46 yards on 15 carries. Sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins had -42 yards rushing due to the sacks he took -- some of which he blamed on himself holding the ball too long after the game -- and if not for freshman N'Keal Harry having an amazing 31-yard touchdown run, that number would have been much worse. 

Wilkins also threw two interceptions, the first of which was among the worst throws of the season by an ASU quarterback, late in the end zone on a play that should have been a touchdown to sophomore tight end JayJay Wilson. His second interception was a thrown undercut by Utah top tackler Chase Hansen, and returned for a touchdown that cemented the game for Utah at 42-26. 

"I’m not trying to take away from Utah, like I said before they did a great job game planning for us," Wilkins said. "But those are just mental errors on my part. They are two errors I can’t do. Obviously there was a climb route down there in the end zone, and I just didn’t see a guy coming back across. Just have to know that we have points there regardless, we have the best field goal kicker in the nation. I just have to throw that away or get what I can get and get down. At the end of the game, just a simple concept. He made a good play, but I shouldn’t have thrown that ball."

It would be enough for ASU to have significant problems on defense, but it appears all but certain it'll enter 2017 with continued uncertainty at quarterback. Wilkins now has seven interceptions to match his seven touchdowns, and an offensive line that looked to be young and talented, now begs the question as to whether it'll be ready to anchor the offense into next year. 

“We got sacked 11 times, which is ridiculous," Graham said. "Our whole deal was to have no negatives and to take care of the football but we ended up with 11 sacks and 22 [tackles for loss]. It is hard to be successful when you’re doing that.

“I’m not concerned about our team. I absolutely hate losing and there are a lot of factors that contribute to that, but that doesn't do you any good to wallow in that. We just got, that was the 15th ranked team in the country and I really thought we could have beat them.” 

As his team's losses have piled up in the last two years, and momentum has been lost, Graham's said things like that a lot. A few plays here, a few plays there. A good effort that fell just short. But those things have been said by others in the past as well, including Erickson in 2011 when his ASU team barely lost to UCLA and Arizona in the five game stretch that ended his career in Tempe. 

Erickson happened to be in Tempe again on Thursday, but he was on the other side of the aisle. He's now the Assistant Head Coach of Utah, where he's been since 2013 working under head coach Kyle Whittingham. The Utes have a chance to put together back-to-back 10-win seasons if they can get two more this year. It's where Graham has already been in Tempe but a place that now seems so far removed just a couple years later. 

“We will rise again," Graham said, "we just got to figure it out.”

The Sun Devils are desperately in need of a sea change on defense. But time and tide wait for no man, and dark waves of history are now lapping at their heels. 

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