TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State coach Todd Graham was hoping his defense had turned the corner in a dominant performance against UCLA on Oct. 8. Then the Sun Devils regressed in a loss at Colorado on Saturday, allowing 315 rushing yards and 580 totals yards in a 40-16 loss.
“What a difference a week makes,” Graham said. “If you had asked me a week ago I would have gone, ‘wow, that was our best defensive performance yet,’ dominating, maybe as good as we’ve had here. Then we go and we don’t play very well, we don’t tackle well, we don’t play anything very well other than special teams.”
Entering Saturday’s game against Washington State at Sun Devil Stadium, ASU was ranked 106th out of 128 FBS teams in scoring defense at 34 points per game. The Sun Devils ranked 123rd in total defense (506 yards per game) and dead last in passing defense (384.4 yards per game), with only their 21st-ranked rushing defense (121.6 yards) to hang their hat on.
Defense wasn’t supposed to be the main issue for ASU this season. The Sun Devils did revamp their secondary, and those problems have persisted from last season when the team also ranked dead last in passing yards allowed, but the offense came in with a new starting quarterback and four new starters on the offensive line. That unit has been inconsistent, but still ranks a respectable 32nd in scoring offense (36.3 points per game) and 76th in total offense (401.1 yards per game).
“I couldn’t care less about the numbers,” Graham said. “Total yards and all that stuff absolutely doesn’t matter one bit. You’ve got to get better fundamentally, you’ve got to improve tackling.”
Tackling has been an issue for ASU all season, with the lone exception of the UCLA game. It’s confounding to Graham because the Sun Devils run tackling drills over and over again in practice, working in great detail on fundamentals and technique.
“Some of it probably has to do with who you are tackling, but a lot of what we’ve made mistakes in, especially in the games we’ve tackled poorly like Texas Tech, it’s all about angles and what we call tracking and being disciplined to trust where your help is,” Graham said. “People are going to break runs from time to time. We had one for 70 yards the other night, but we have a middle-of-the field safety, we a have corner outside and then we don’t track properly and we give up a touchdown.”
That the Sun Devils are still 5-2 is remarkable in light of those stats, but senior captain Laiu Moeakiola, a linebacker and safety, said the Sun Devils are aware of their deficiencies.
“We just need to do what we’re coached to do, what we’re prepared to do,” Moeakiola said. “You have to see past all of the numbers. You have to focus on one game at a time; focus on being 1-0 and even being 1-0 on every rep. Just focusing on the little things, the details, fine-tuning those things and definitely getting back to our fundamentals and running to the ball, that will help.
“We’re getting there. We had a good game against UCLA, probably our best of the season and our mindset is right, but we’ve still got a way to go.”
Improving on defense will be paramount as the Sun Devils hit the difficult part of their schedule. In the next five weeks, they play three roads games (at Oregon, at No. 5 Washington and at Arizona) and two home games against Washington State (fourth among teams receiving votes outside the AP Top 25) and No. 19 Utah.
“We’re sitting 5-2 and our goals are still at hand,” Moeakiola said. “The attitude is great right now and guys are still coming in willing to learn, but we understand the position that we’re in as a team.”