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December 5, 2013

Post-Stanford defensive changes key in rematch

The last time Arizona State and Stanford played, one play perfectly illustrated Stanford's success on offense.

With 0:37 left in the third quarter, Stanford scored on a 16-yard touchdown run by senior running back Tyler Gaffney to put the Cardinal up 39-7.

Stanford came out in a jumbo package with one extra tackle on the right side, Gaffney lined up in the eye behind a fullback and there were no wide receivers in the formation. It was a simple off-tackle hand-off. Gaffney just had to hit the hole, make one cut and he scored untouched because of the work the offensive line put in up front.

On the snap of the ball, Stanford senior guard Kevin Danser and senior tackle Cameron Fleming immediately started a double team block on ASU sophomore defensive tackle Mo Latu. Fleming could tell Danser had Latu under control, so he threw a little jab at the ASU nose guard and moved up field toward ASU senior SAM linebacker Steffon Martin. By the time Martin saw that Gaffney had the ball, Fleming was already on his outside shoulder and Martin was completely blocked out of the play.

It was a perfect double team block executed by Stanford.

With its defensive line and linebackers under control only ASU's safeties were left to defend. Redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola read the run and came up field quickly. As he came up into the hole he was immediately met by a pulling Stanford senior guard David Yankey. It looked like Moeakiola wanted to avoid the contact and Yankey got inside of him to block him out of the play.

Gaffney cut right off Yankey's hip for the touchdown.

Stanford's scheme should not change and its offense might even run the exact same play. The difference this Saturday is there will be three different players playing where Latu, Martin and Moekiola were playing.

Coleman nose

Senior defensive tackle Davon Coleman actually played against Stanford. He had lost out on the starting defensive end position to senior Gannon Conway in the preseason but was still used as third down pass rusher in the nickel package.

Latu was not the starting nose tackle for the Stanford game. Sophomore Jaxon Hood was, just like he was all last season. But he went down early in the game with a hamstring injury.

Halfway through the next game against USC, Coleman moved to the nose and the rest is history.

Even when Hood returned to full strength, Coleman was still the starter. His production was impossible to overlook.

After starting the season as a back-up Coleman leads all defensive linemen with 51 total tackles and is tied with junior Devil backer Carl Bradford for most sacks on the team with seven and a half.

This Saturday will be the first time Coleman will compete against Stanford as a nose tackle.

"It definitely feels like my first crack [at them]," Coleman said. "I'm really excited to go against them. It's a great opponent. I always want to go against the best."

After watching film, Coleman said the Stanford offense is most impressive running the ball in short yardage situations.

In their last game against Arizona, the Sun Devil defense showed they have improved at stopping short yardage run plays. It held UA senior running back and Pac-12 offensive player of the year Ka'Deem Carey on three fourth down conversions.

Coleman gave credit to his teammates and the coaching scheme for stifling the run on fourth and short.

On those plays, teams tend to run the ball on dive plays right through the A gap. As a nose tackle, Coleman knows he has to be ready for the play to designed to come through his gap.

"That's where they run it right to me," Coleman said. "I like that personally. So we're going to see what happens on Saturday."

Before the UA game, Coleman was leading the team in sacks. Playing the 1-techinque is difficult for Coleman to get to the quarterback because he does not have a direct route like Bradford does off the edge.

Coleman has to fight through large interior offensive linemen and sometimes get past a blocking running back in order to get to the passer.

As a former defensive end, he has used his unusual speed for a nose tackle to get past slower interior offensive linemen this season. He said he has the same strategy this week going up against Stanford's stout offensive line unit.

In the first chapter of the season, ASU faced Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and then Notre Dame. There probably is not a defense in the country who faced a tougher stretch of offensive lines. Graham said throughout the season Stanford's big men were some of the best ASU has gone up against.

Graham will be looking to Coleman to help the ASU defensive front have a better performance against the Cardinal hogs.

SAMlamo Fiso

The last time ASU played Stanford, redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso did not get into game until the fourth quarter.

When Stanford had sealed its victory, Graham put Fiso into the game at SAM linebacker. With the game winding down, Fiso made the most of his snaps and had four tackles and one and a half tackles for loss.

After the Stanford game, Fiso became the starting SAM in name. It took him a couple games to get completely comfortable with the system and being a full time starter. Martin moved in and out of games when Fiso would make mental errors.

At this point in the season, Fiso is playing like a real starter. He is tied for third on the team with 57 total tackles and five and a half tackles for loss.

Fiso said he has improved just from the experience of being a starter.

"I've gotten more technical with my skills and worked on the little things like watching film and knowing what I have to do," Fiso said. "We played them what, on our third game so I wasn't really in the rotation like that so film and knowing what I have to do is going to play a big part. It's actually a lot of mental. I have the instincts, you know what I mean, on how to play linebacker. It's just all mental. Knowing where to look with your eyes, what to read, what your keys are and then finally going to the ball."

Senior safety Alden Darby said he played against Fiso in high school in Long Beach, Calif., and knew he'd become an impressive player because, "Coming out of Long Beach, all we produce is ballers."

Darby said Fiso did not have the right mentality that he was going to be the starter until a couple games into the season.

"He kind of came into camp, thinking he was going to be second string and saying, 'Okay, I'm going to be behind Steffon Martin,'" Darby said. "So he kind of didn't really prepare to be the starter all the way like he should have but he picked it up."

Fiso showed in the Stanford game he can be physical with the Cardinal's big interior linemen. The way he played against the run was the reason he became the starter for the rest of the season.

For ASU to defeat Stanford in the Pac-12 championship, Fiso will have to play Saturday's game in its entirety like he did for about a quarter when the teams first met.

Now it's Randall time

Junior safety Damarious Randall made the trip all the way to Palo Alto, Calif., to stand on the sideline. Randall had not fully recovered from a groin injury he suffered during summer workouts.

He played a couple snaps in the Wisconsin game prior, but was a complete non-factor in the Stanford game.

Graham made Randall the starter right before the Notre Dame not long thereafter. But like Fiso, he struggled to adapt to being the fulltime starter and Moeakiola would move in and out of the field safety spot.

As the year progressed, Randall learned the defensive system.

"I am very comfortable," Randall said. "I know everything what's going on and I actually know the entire defense now to where if I had to call some stuff, I could actually call the defense."

Randall and Darby have a lot of responsibilities as safeties. They refer to the secondary as the quarterback of the defense and call out different adjustments to their teammates.

In the Stanford game there were a couple miscommunications between the defensive backs which were costly for ASU. For example Stanford junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery caught a 30-yard touchdown pass because Darby did not get a call and the middle of the field was wide open.

Randall said since that game, the secondary has improved its communication skills and the players trust each other more now.

The trust lead to the ASU secondary having the No. 3 ranked pass defense in the Pac-12, only giving up 217.2 yards per game.

Randall has gotten more comfortable with the playbook and his teammates. Darby said the main difference is Randall, a former junior college player, has gotten used to real college football.

"It's a lot different coming a JUCO or coming from high school," Darby said. "It's a lot different in game experience. He warmed up. He's playing at an all-time high right now. He's playing at another level right now. He's playing like he's been playing here for years."

Randall was definitely playing at a high level for the Sun Devils last weekend when he returned an interception for a touchdown, forced a fumble and had a game-high 12 tackles. His performance against the Wildcats awarded him the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors.

If Randall defends Stanford like he did against UA, the Sun Devils will have a much better chance of going to the Rose Bowl.


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