Studying Arizona State’s defense from 2015 can be maddening. Watching it unfold live -- and again, and again, and again on film -- even more so. Head coach Todd Graham has studied the numbers and watched the film.
He laments the missed opportunities -- and there were more than a few. He’s quick to point out that the Sun Devils were leading in the final 15 minutes in five of their seven losses. But he’s equally quick to assume responsibility for the fourth-quarter cough-ups.
“The key to playing good defense in this league is stopping the run and winning the explosives (plays of 20-plus yards),” Graham said. “Then there is creating takeaways and not giving the ball up.”
Perfectly logical. Ask the league’s other 11 coaches and you’ll probably get a nearly identical quote.
When it came to stopping the run, the Sun Devils were quite good, ranking third in the conference. The other two keys, however, were the catalysts for a defensive collapse that resulted in a 6-7 season.
The Sun Devils gave up the most points per game (33.5) of the Graham era. They had the fewest turnovers (21) and -- the most damning statistic -- yielded 88 plays of 20-plus yards. That was worst among all Power 5 teams and second worst nationally.
“Oh yeah,” Graham said with a sigh. “That was bad.”
The numbers are trending in a precarious direction for the Sun Devils defense. Each year under Graham, the points allowed have gotten worse -- from 24.3 in 2012 to 26.6 in 2013, 27.9 in 2014 before ballooning to 33.5 last season.
The steady increase of scoring begs the question: Are opposing coaches starting to figure out Graham and his hybrid-attacking defense?
The answer is either yes … with a but. Or no … with a however. There were plenty of circumstances at play in 2015. The offense gave up the ball more, so ASU’s defense was on the field more often. There were injuries, but every team has injuries.
“We didn’t do a very good job adapting,” Graham said. “We want to attack. But we have to know where that line is. We want to attack, but with minimal risk. We were definitely out of kilter with that last year.”
That’s exactly what one Pac-12 coach told ESPN.com during the offseason. That despite personnel changes each year, the Sun Devils haven’t changed what they are doing.
"I think people are starting to figure them out,” the coach said. “All it takes is one coordinator to see something and make a change. Then another one notices what the change was, and then another and then another. Before you know it, the entire league has figured you out and you have to start over.
“It depends on which day you get them. We've played them and they've sacked us a bunch and won. Another time we were able to hit big plays on them. When they have the right personnel, it can be completely destructive. But when they don't, there are holes."
They don’t have Damarious Randall … or Will Sutton … or Carl Bradford anymore. And yet the Sun Devils still led the league in sacks last season (46). They had been one of the best in turnover margin, but stumbled to just plus-two last season.
“Our defense is very different,” defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said. “No one runs anything like us. But coaches adjust. They game plan just as well as our coaches do. They find loopholes. So that’s on us to be able to adjust to what they are doing. Coach Graham knows that and he’ll figure it out.”
Graham isn’t ready to nuke the system yet. He believes in what he’s doing and, save last year’s hiccup, he’s had success. The Sun Devils are 34-19 under his watch. In four seasons, his defense has caused 178 sacks. That’s second in FBS over that stretch, trailing only Stanford (181). He’s two seasons removed from being named the league’s coach of the year.
“Those first couple of years, people weren’t really looking at us,” Graham said. “Then when you play for a conference championship, people start paying attention and it gets more difficult the way people study you and research you.
“We think there are some things we can do. We want to operate efficiently. We want to be able to attack and dictate, but we need to know what that median is, where that line is. I feel good up front and we’ve got some new comers on the back end. It’s going to be a combination of schematics and finding the right personnel.”