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November 22, 2013
Turnover margin big part of Sun Devil success
When opponents have put the football in jeopardy this season, Arizona State's defensive players have been a little bit like sharks in the water reacting to the scent of blood, eager for the kill.
More often than their peers, that thirst has been quenched.
Through 10 games the Sun Devils have forced 17 interceptions and recovered eight fumbles, leading the Pac-12 in takeaways.
With only 15 turnovers, ASU has a plus-10 margin, which ranks second in the league to Oregon and No. 16 nationally.
At 8-2 overall and 6-1 in the Pac-12, generating takeaways and protecting the ball are things ASU coach Todd Graham preaches on a near-daily basis and is a major factor in the team's success.
"No question about it," ASU linebackers coach/co-coordinator Paul Randolph said. "The way we talk about it is we want at least three plus takeaways a game. That's our goal every game. That directly impacts the final outcome of the game, and our guys fully understand that."
Senior cornerback Robert Nelson leads the team in interceptions with six after stealing two away from Oregon State junior quarterback Sean Mannion.
Mannion also threw two other interceptions, one each to senior safety Alden Darby and junior safety Damarious Randall after only throwing six though his team's first nine games.
Against Utah, Nelson, as well as senior defensive lineman Will Sutton, had interceptions on the last two Utah drives to seal a comeback win for the Sun Devils.
With two games left on the schedule, Nelson has the most picks by an ASU player since Troy Nolan had six in 2007. The most prior to that was six by Nathan LaDuke in 1989. Eric Allen had eight in 1987. Both Nolan and LaDuke were safeties, so Nelson now has the most interceptions in a season by a cornerback since Allen.
Nelson has an interception in four of the last five games and five total interceptions in that time, returning his first for a touchdown against OSU. He is averaging 0.5 interceptions per game, a total that ranks fourth nationally and his six total interceptions are third nationally and first in the Pac-12.
"Rob is one of my favorite guys," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "He's a great kid, great person and loves this team. He has a look in his eye where he really is a guy that seeks coaching and at some times is a challenge to coach. He's really had two of the most critical plays in the last two games. At Utah, he and Will's play were the ones that sealed the deal. The interception for a touchdown last week put the game out of hand and sealed the deal. He's playing phenomenal. [Tuesday] was his best practice that he's had. The guy has matured by light years and I'm really proud of him."
After the OSU game, ASU proved that it could force turnovers in a different way than what it was used to.
For most of the season, the Sun Devil defense has been very aggressive, blitzing five and sometimes even six players in effort to force a hurried throw or stop a run at or behind the line of scrimmage. It has contributed to ASU being the nation's top ranked defense at forcing three-and-outs, at 6.8 per game or 47.2 percent of its opportunities.
Against OSU, Graham took a different approach against the pro-style, pass-happy offense, instead of going with his usual aggressive style. For the most part, ASU only rushed four, deferring instead to sitting back in coverage and making Mannion beat them, which in the end proved to be a good decision.
"We probably pressured less tonight than we have the entire year," Graham said in the game's immediate aftermath. "Just kind of felt like we had really good matchups so we just matched up and covered them. Our plan was to pressure with four and cover with seven. We felt like we could pressure with four and if you put pressure on the quarterback, he's going to throw you the ball. We also did a lot of disguise tonight. We showed a lot of pressure and then only rushed three which is almost a sin for me to rush three. We had a good plan and because we were playing so much coverage I think that's why you saw so many of the interceptions and takeaways."
The Sun Devils have now forced a turnover in 24 consecutive games, including every game of the Graham era, an active streak that currently ranks third among FBS institutions behind Missouri and Stanford.
"We have just continued playing the game we have been playing and doing it better every time," Randolph said. "The guys have really been getting a lot better the past four or five weeks. I think that's the biggest thing and we've been starting to do our job. We just have to continue to focus on us, do our job and do it to the best of our abilities and the turnovers will come."
As turnover margin is a tale of both sides of the ball, it falls equally upon the offense to not turn the ball over, which Graham harps on constantly as a huge key to winning games.
ASU ranks No. 18 nationally in fumbles lost this season with five. In addition to being the leading scorer in the Pac-12, senior running back Marion Grice is one of the most ball secure. He lost his first and only fumble thus far as a Sun Devil against Washington State several weeks ago.
Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly has thrown 10 interceptions this season, which has played a pivotal roles in whether or not ASU emerges victorious.
Last year, when Kelly didn't throw an interception, the Sun Devils were 8-0. When he threw at least one interception, ASU was 0-5. This season, the Sun Devils find themselves in a similar situation. When Kelly throws zero or one interception, they are 7-0. In comparison, when Kelly has thrown at least two interceptions, the Sun Devils are 1-2.
Once the Sun Devils force turnovers, not only do they not turn the ball back over that frequently, they also tend to not leave points on the board following turnovers.
In 2013, ASU is outscoring its opponents 101-35 on points off turnovers. ASU has put points on the board following 72.0 percent of its opponents' turnovers compared to just 33.3 percent for its opponents off turnovers.
Heading into the weekend against UCLA, players realize that this trend has to continue for them to have a shot of clinching the Pac-12 South.
Winning the turnover battle won't be something easily attained this weekend. UCLA ranks No. 23 in the nation in turnover margin at plus-seven, not far behind the Sun Devils nationally or in the Pac-12.
The Sun Devils are acutely aware and know that in order to leave the Rose Bowl the victor, they will have to focus on playing the level of defense that they have progressively been getting better at playing as the season has come along.
"Turnovers are always huge," senior cornerback Osahon Irabor said. "We want to win that battle and be plus after the game. That means if the offense turns the ball over once we want to have at least two turnovers on defense so it's always positive. It's a huge factor in every game and it's going to be a huge factor along with minimizing big plays this weekend. [Sophomore UCLA quarterback Brett] Hundley is really good at extending the play, he's really elusive in the pocket. We have to make sure we surround him and we play great coverage in the back end. We have to lock on to receiver when he's back there scrambling. We definitely have to play as a unit. We have a great game plan we've been working on all week so we just have to go out there and execute it."
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