After three straight games against teams in the top 20 nationally for total defense, the USC Trojans could get a chance to stretch their legs this weekend against the youthful Arizona State Sun Devil defense.
As much as the Trojan offense has been called into question since trouncing Fresno State in the season opener, ASU’s defense has earned plenty of question marks after giving up 500+ yards to lowly Colorado and 62 points in a drubbing at home to UCLA.
Most of those questions stem from all the new faces that populate the Sun Devil ranks.
Along with the loss of Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, Arizona State has worked to replace six starters across a defense which ranked in the top half of the conference in most statistical categories in 2013.
The trouble is those replacements have come in the form of some very inexperienced players, including three true freshman.
Sep 13, 2014; Boulder, CO, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils nose tackle Jaxon Hood (92) reacts after making a tackle during the first half against the Colorado Buffaloes at Folsom Field . Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
In fact, you can take the career starts of eight different defensive starters for ASU this season and combined they still don’t match the 22 career starts of the Sun Devils’ most veteran player Jaxon Hood.
Granted, as USC can attest to on both sides of the ball, youth isn’t always a bad thing.
Freshmen Armand Perry and DJ Calhoun have claimed 19 and 18 tackles respectively this season and Tashon Smallwood has the talent to make a real impact on the defensive line.
Unfortunately for ASU, Smallwood and company are a long way from filling the shoes of Sutton and the other departed veterans.
No Sugar-Coating the Numbers
Statistically, the Sun Devils are just plain bad on defense.
They rank 96th in the nation in total defense and sit in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in pretty much every other statistical category. Considering the opposition in the first three games — Weber State, New Mexico and Colorado — those numbers can’t be explained away by a particularly bad outing against a strong UCLA team.
The 580 yards and 62 points given up to UCLA only speak to the bigger problems which don’t show up in the statistics: missed tackles and poor execution.
The Bruins were given free run of the field last Thursday and while Brett Hundley is an exceptional quarterback, it wouldn’t have taken an exceptional performance to punish the Sun Devils as he did.
USC may not be firing on all cylinders on offense, but the talent is there to take advantage of what a defense gives them.
Buck Allen, who is averaging more than 100 yards per game on the ground this season, will look at a defense, which has conceded more than 200 yards on the ground to each of the past three teams they’ve played, and feel pretty good about his chances shine.
So will Cody Kessler when he realizes that the Sun Devils rank at the bottom of the Pac-12 in opponent passer rating. In fact, they’re just 11 from the basement nationally.
Sep 25, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils defensive back Damarious Randall lays on the field after suffering an injury in the second quarter against the UCLA Bruins at Sun Devil Stadium. UCLA defeated Arizona State 62-27. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
It’s Not All Bad…Right?
The Sun Devils do have some defensive positives to build on.
Senior safety Damarious Randall leads the team in tackles this year while his counterpart junior Jordan Simone has been a standout in his first season as a starter coming in second in tackles. He also boasts an interception and forced fumble.
While no one player has stood out in the pass rush, the Sun Devils are getting contributions from all over the field with six players logging a sack this season.
Understanding the ASU defensive two-deep requires a thesaurus.
Tiger. Devil. Spur. Boundary Corner. Boundary Safety. Field Safety. Field Corner.
Some of the terms are mostly just fancy ways of talking about positions which go by more traditional names elsewhere, but a couple are just fancy ways of talking about hybrid positions that Trojan fans may already be familiar with.
Most notably, Antonio Longino, Edmond Boateng and De’Marieya Nelson contend for the starting spot at the Devil, which is a hybrid linebacker-defensive end position much like the rush end occupied by J.R. Tavai for USC.
Then there’s the Spur, which is a hybrid linebacker-safety position claimed by Viliami Moeakiola. Unlike the Trojans’ Su’a Cravens, Moeakiola is a linebacker first, safety second.
What the stats say…
- It’s almost like USC’s offense and ASU’s defense were made for each other. Down the line, the Trojans and Sun Devils are nearly mirror images in scoring, first downs, yards per passing attempt, total offense and third down conversion percentage. That’s much better news for the offense than it is for the defense.
- Despite a host of explosive players, USC’s explosive drive percentage (percent of drives which average more than 10 yards per play) is rather low. On the flip side, ASU has allowed more explosive drives than 114 teams out of 128.
Projected Starting Lineups
Arizona State Defense:NT #92 Jaxon HoodTIGER #90 Tashon Smallwood OR #94 Demetrius CherryDE #1 Marcus HardisonDEVIL #12 De’Marieya Nelson OR #97 Edmond Boateng OR #32 Antonio LonginoSPUR #28 Viliami MoeakiolaSLB #Salamo FisoWLB #4 DJ CalhounCB #8 Lloyd CarringtonSS #3 Damarious RandallFS #38 Jordan SimoneCB #13 Armand Perry OR Kweichi Brown
USC Offense:WR #9 JuJu SmithWR #15 Nelson AgholorTE #82 Randall TelferRT #73 Zach BannerRG #51 Damien Mama OR #60 Viane TalamaivaoC #75 Max TuerkLG #50 Toa LobendahnLT #72 Chad WheelerWR #8 George FarmerQB #6 Cody KesslerFB #31 Soma VainukuTB #37 Javorius Allen