This season, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham has scaled back the hyper-aggressive style of defense the Sun Devils have traditionally played during his tenure, instead opting for more conservative zone coverages.
However, the Sun Devils have failed to reap the benefits of the change, as the team ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in total defense and last in the country in passing defense.
Graham’s coaching staff emphasizes the importance of maintaining a positive turnover ratio every day in practice, but so far, the Sun Devils' ball security and takeaway drills haven’t led to production in live action.
“Our turnovers have gone down because of less pressure, and having different people playing at quarterback,” Graham said. “There’s nothing we emphasize more. We start every practice with ball security and attacking the football. Our deal was we felt like that if we pressured less, we’d give up less big plays and that’s not necessary always the case.”
This season, the Sun Devils’ secondary has allowed an FBS-worst 387.4 passing yards per game, while ASU's defense has given up 15 touchdown plays of at least 30 yards.
Not only have the Sun Devils had trouble generating turnovers, but as of late, ASU's offense has also surrendered the ball to its opponents far too often.
“Yeah, I think the number one thing is you’ve got to take care of the football,” Graham said. “Earlier in the year, when we were 5-1, we were doing fine there. Obviously, when you stop attacking as often as what we did, that goes with it a little bit too. You look and see the amount of (tackles for loss) and sacks that Utah has and look how much pressure they run almost every play and running a lot of wave pressure and things like that are very difficult to handle. That’s the number one key is turnover ratio and then rush defense, rush offense."
In ASU's 49-26 loss to Utah on Thursday, the Sun Devils jumped out to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter in part due to a pair of Utah turnovers. However, the Utes cleaned things up the rest of the way, and outscored ASU 49-13 in the final three quarters thanks to the team's ability to protect the football and force ASU into long yardage situations offensively.
“I mean, it’s just frustrating because obviously when you don’t pressure as much, your ratio of (tackles for loss) and sacks and all of that goes down and turnovers and getting takeaways, but I think we got two turnovers in the first three series," Graham said. "On their end, they only got three points out of. In the end, reviewing the film, we turned the ball over twice. I think that was huge difference in the game."
Graham said Monday that ASU’s game plan, as has often been the case this season, was to take away Utah's run game and make the Utes one-dimensional.
In the first half, running back Joe Williams’ production was stymied, but in the second half, Williams busted out two long touchdown runs that sealed the Utes' win against the Sun Devils.
“I thought as far as what we wanted to do, shut down the run, I think 40 or something yards at halftime until they broke the long run on us, I thought we had that in check,” Graham said. “The story of the game when you go back and look at the film — when I look at the film, my only impression is just big plays — and they had four one-play touchdowns.”
While ASU is on pace to have the worst pass defense in FBS history, capitalizing on opportunities like the near-interception junior linebacker Alani Latu dropped in a one-score game against Utah could help take pressure off the team's secondary in the closing weeks of the season.
“We need to create those turnovers," Graham said. "We did the first half (of the season), we were able to get those things, and we’ve had some opportunities where the ball’s been on the ground and not get it, ball’s been in our hands and not caught it, but the big thing is we’ve turned the ball over,” Graham said. “What’s contributed to that is having a different person and inexperience at the quarterback position, because it’s not been fumbles, it’s been interceptions.”
True freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry had his best performance as a Sun Devil on Thursday, as he reeled in eight receptions for 114 yards and turned a negative play into a highlight reel touchdown run on a botched double pass from the 31-yard line.
At the snap, sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins immediately threw a pass to Harry, who was a few yards behind the line of scrimmage on the perimeter, but Harry dropped the football.
After picking the ball back up and looking for a receiver, Harry elected to tuck the ball and run, and once he took off, a handful of Utes' defenders had over-pursued the play giving the freshman a clear path for the end zone.
Graham praised Harry’s performance after Saturday's game, and on Monday, Graham made note of the full-on development the freshman wideout has made over the course of the season.
“I think phenomenal,” Graham said. “When you look at the play he made the other night, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a freshman make a play like that. He’s made progress in his blocking. He’s made progress in his route running. He’s still learning a lot. Coach Norvell’s done a great job of developing him. He’s a guy that has a lot more tools we can use. He’s developed. You couldn’t ask anymore as far as his development."