I was lucky enough to be loose on the Palouse Saturday afternoon. As it is mid-October, the day turned out clear, crisp and cold, perfect football weather in my book. Any later in the year and the area would be snow-covered and nasty. The Devils were lucky in the time of year and weather.
As usual, the game story has been written and published elsewhere and Sun Devil fans know the basics. My intent here, instead of telling the obvious, is telling what I saw. Let's get to it.
I still shake my head in wonder as I begin typing words to describe my thoughts on the game. It was less than five years ago that starting any column about ASU football with a discussion of the defense would've been unheard of -- unless the defense were some sort of culprit. My, how times have changed. Clearly, the front seven of this Arizona State defense is a thing of beauty. The Cougs' punter finished the game as their leading rusher. The Cougs had a net minus-54 yards rushing. The Devils collected a ton of sacks. Regardless of whether the sacks total is a team record, that they came from everywhere and anyone, and especially that many came from the Devils' defensive line, was a marvelous thing.
In the locker room after the game, one of the Cougar offensive linemen was asked about the ASU front seven and after pausing for a moment, he allowed that the speed of the ASU defensive line caught them by surprise. "We just didn't expect their speed," he muttered. "It's hard to run anything when your quarterbacks are getting drilled back there and there's not much we did to help them."
Hopefully not forgotten in the hoopla of how dominant the front seven was against WSU is credit for how they got there in the first place. That credit has to fall, largely, on defensive coordinator Craig Bray. Regardless of how athletic, fast or strong the players are, if they are in the wrong places, they are not going to succeed. This is the third straight game I've observed in which it is apparent that Coach Bray knows what's coming. Coach is doing a bang-up job calling the defenses, putting the players in positions from which, if they execute, they make a play. It was no accident that Mike Nixon nearly picked off that pass in the first half (he would've scored easily). Bray put him there. All Nix had to do was catch the ball.
Also largely unnoticed is how well Bray's been able to manage his position group's playing time. Every linebacker, it seems, gets time, gets time when it matters and gets the chance to make a big play. They all make plays. Of the top five in tackles on the afternoon, four were linebackers (Nixon, Travis Goethel, Brandon Magee and Vontaze Burfict). The lone interloper there was the Man among Guys -- Lawrence Guy, who checked in with five total tackles, including 2.5 sacks for a net minus 21 yards. None of the LBs seems to be tweeting about playing time…
All isn't exactly peaches and cream on the defense, though, and the pass interference penalties and THE play of the game should point out at least two problems which if not fixed (by next weekend), could plague the Devils well into late November.
You all know the play I'm referring to. It covered 99 ½ yards (the ball was actually spotted inside the one-yard line) and was a half-second from being a sack for a safety. Instead, Josh Jordan was beaten down the Sun Devils' sideline for a monstrous touchdown, the longest touchdown play in Cougar history. Was he really beaten? From my vantage point, Jordan was unlucky, and as for the TD aspect of the play, was victimized by a missed assignment by one of the safeties. We saw this in the Oregon State game, as well. The safeties have got to be in the right places on pass coverage, or this kind of thing will happen again and again. It's a little strange to me, because on running plays, and believe me, the Devils knew what the Cougs were doing, the safeties were nearly always in perfect position and made the play expected of them. Why it should be so different on clear pass plays is a mystery, but a mystery that needs solving.
As for the PI calls, I have mixed feelings. One wants the DBs to be aggressive and play the ball, but one doesn't want the DBs to make silly mistakes, and a number of the interference calls that they're getting are really unnecessary and clearly silly play by our guys. The DBs have just got to be better about this.
The confusion of my feelings on this, though, relates to something I don't normally talk about. I try to avoid complaining about officiating. However, at a minimum, the officiating in the secondary was uneven in this game. It appeared that any contact whatever by Devil defenders was going to draw a flag, and the notion that a ball was uncatchable was forgotten. The officiating was uneven because Cougar defenders were not called for similar actions. On one play, Kyle Williams got a forearm to the helmet while turning and jumping for a ball from Danny Sullivan, yet nothing was called. From my perspective, calls in the secondary were also an issue in the games against UGA and Oregon State. So, in partial defense of the Devils defensive backs, I question if the officiating is leaving them wondering just how aggressive they can be, how much contact is permissible, etc. Whatever the case, the secondary has to play cleaner, and not give opponents second chances on offense from pass interference calls.
As for the Sun Devil offense, it's hard to judge just how well the offensive line played as in my opinion, the Cougars' front seven as a whole was hideous. There are some good players in that grouping, but the level is wildly inconsistent. The Cougs' top three tacklers came from the back of their defense and it was almost always in the second level, among the linebackers and secondary, that plays were having to be made. Given what they had to face, though, the Devils' offensive line did precisely what it needed to do; the quarterbacks had time and the running backs had lanes.
The only Sun Devil left unprotected on the afternoon was the Head Coach.
As a position and on the whole, the play of the running backs was solid and issues I have there can easily be fixed. On the afternoon, Dimitri Nance, Cameron Marshall and Ryan Bass ran the ball well, seeing the open lanes, hitting them as fast as they are capable of and making as much out of runs as their level of talent will allow. Nance, as a total package, showed again why he deserves starting and most of the playing time. I thought Marshall made a nice statement in his playing time, as much by what we didn't see him do as by what he did. We didn't see him making mistakes in pass protection, at least not obvious ones. The Cougs were credited with one sack and from my vantage point that was clearly a mistake in protection by Bass, who appeared to me to have responsibility for the gap that Bland came through but chose instead to double-team a clearly engaged (and defeated) defensive lineman. Bland came through untouched.
The wideouts I thought played a good game and I think Gerell Robinson took nice advantage of the playing time he received. It's hard to fault him for the fumble on the play where he was trying to make something happen. He was, in fact, only a defender or two away from taking it to the house. In addition, Robinson played with grit, having taken a wicked shot to his knee on the play, yet returning to continue later on in the same quarter. The receivers seemed to run good routes to open places on the field and caught the ball. From my vantage point, as confirmed by the replay that I was able to see, Kyle Williams made the catch of the Brock Osweiler throw on third down late in the second quarter. Yes, the throw was low and behind Kyle, but he made a great adjustment on the ball and had it for a first down.
I've saved the quarterback play for last. Not to keep you all in suspense or because it's a big secret, but mostly because I'm not exactly sure what to say about it. I thought Danny Sullivan played pretty well, making many of the throws he had available to him, but missing big on others. If I were grading the game, I'd give him a C- as in, not bad, not great. If he were to clean up some stuff, have a few errant throws back and make an extra read or two he could rise to a C+ or B-, which in my view would mean a solid, if unspectacular, performance. In addition, I thought Osweiler made decent use of his time in the second quarter and showed some things that are going to be nice in the future. He has good pocket awareness and the ability to scramble into the proper space from which to make a play. He would've helped himself tremendously had important the third-down throw to been on target, but the fact that he was able to get himself into a position to even make a throw is somewhat of a positive. It will be interesting to see what happens with playing/practicing time going forward.
On the whole, while the game was somewhat ugly (if you read all of the papers and columnists), it was a positive step for the Devils. They nearly did what they should've done, which is to come out and smash the Cougars in the mouth early and not let them get into the game. The Sun Devil defense clearly did that, and had the offense been a little cleaner and scored more often when given the ball, it would've been more of a rout. As it was, even with the miscues, the outcome was never in doubt.
The only thing in doubt was whether Coach could climb up off the deck and get back into the game. We should never have wondered; he's tough, resilient and put the headset back on. And perhaps with this win, the Devils climbed back into contention for a post-season bowl game.
With U-Dub, the level of competition will be higher, the Huskies coming off an improbable (but, god how SWEET!) win against a solid, if brainless-from-a-play-calling-standpoint-in-the-final-three-minutes, opponent. If the offensive line continues to show improvement and a few things are cleaned up in the passing game, the Devils' offense might very well be enough to score another 27 points, and given what the defense is capable of, that will be enough. To be 4-2 after next weekend is not the end of the world, and with some good play, three more wins and a bowl berth are still entirely possible.