A special thanks to Hod Rabino of Devil’s Digest for chatting with us about ASU football. We talked about problems at o-line, the surprising lack of Eno Benjamin in this Sun Devil offense, and whether the fanbase should see their doctors after taking a dose of Herm.
Here’s a pair of numbers I tallied in five games of film study on Arizona St that illustrates their season: 27% of their dropbacks produce a sack, scramble, or throwaway, which is the second worst of any team I’ve studied this year. But on 65% of #5 QB Daniels’ scrambles, he achieves a successful play. That is to say, the Sun Devils are defined by a true freshman quarterback finding ways to sustain drives despite pretty shoddy offensive line play.
The biggest change -- and surprise -- from last season is how much #3 RB Benjamin has been de-emphasized. Both his carries per game and his rushing average are down about 20% from last year, and most importantly, he’s not producing explosive runs in anywhere near the quantity he was in 2018 - in the five games I watched, he only got one run over 20 yards, and only six more over 10. He hasn’t been nearly as successful as last season at pulling off his trademark spin move to get out of tackles and produce huge extra yardage, and in fact several attempts have resulted in fumbles (he’s put the ball on the ground five times this year). On the podcast, Hod coined my favorite new term of the year, describing Benjamin as “spin-shy.”
But I think the biggest culprit is simply that the offensive line is having a much harder time opening holes for him, after going through some early injuries and still using a three-man rotation at the tackles, and being forced to play two true freshman (the other four are seniors, in a weird class imbalance, and oddly I think they’re the much bigger underperformers). Some examples:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Wazzu fields the smallest defensive front in the league, but they’re simply manhandling #56 LG Losoya and #61 RG West, and #77 LT Henderson is so distracted by it he’s not blocking the safety when the back tries to bounce outside.
- :14 - Both #63 LT Hemsley and #73 C Cabral are failing to get up and off their blocks to the second level, and #71 RT Miller is letting his man in the backside. Note #87 TE Hudson in the formation; that makes it more than twice as likely this’ll be a run as when they use no tight ends.
- :20 - This is a stretch zone run similar to Oregon’s but with the second RB as an extra blocker. It’s hard to find a properly executed assignment here - the playside d-linemen are immediately in the backfield, West and Miller aren’t controlling the backside DT, neither guard makes their second-level block. When Benjamin cuts behind Miller to avoid that mess he runs into the unblocked backside end.
For all their difficulties getting chunk yardage in the run game, it was still fairly efficient in the games I watched: 71 successful runs to 48 failed ones, nearly a 60% success rate (although I should mention that the games I charted them in were against four of the five worst rush defenses in the conference, and whole-season analytics rate them as fairly ineffective at rushing overall ... perhaps this goes to in-game adjustments).
Despite being their most efficient plays in the set of games I charted, ASU only called a designed run about a third of the time … one of many reasons I’m not OC Likens’ biggest fan. There were two down & distance situations in these games that I thought were particularly glaring in terms of getting the run-pass balance backwards:
- 1st & 10: 63% rush success rate to 49% pass success rate, but 40:60 run-pass frequency
- 3rd & short: 80% rush success rate to 36% pass success rate, but 50:50 run-pass frequency
I think most of the run game’s success comes from backs who are talented enough to take advantage of rush defense problems and eager to make cuts into what they think are more promising lanes. Some examples:
- :00 - I’m not sure why Benjamin didn’t keep going through the A-gap since the blocks are all set up nicely for a change, but his surprise cutback gets through the arms of the unblocked end.
- :07 - This is an impressively athletic jumpcut to the backside through a late-developing hole due to the guard pull, and Benjamin drags the unblocked end another five yards. The playside tackle and WR aren’t maintaining great leverage on their defenders, but I still think he should have kept going through the big B-gap and outran them, however.
- :13 - Readers will recall this trick by Oregon St from last week, where they send two defenders to catch both possibilities of a read option. ASU uses the same response as Arizona did, calling the bluff and running away from it, then when the remaining backer heads for that gap the back makes a nice cut to the now wholly unoccupied side of the field.
After losing the phenomenal wideout N’Keal Harry to the first round of the NFL draft, I thought there would be some diversification of the passing offense, since Harry tended to suck all the oxygen out of the room, as Hod put it on this summer’s podcast preview. But instead ASU’s passing offense has if anything gotten even more concentrated on a single receiver, in this case #2 WR Aiyuk, who has more receiving yards than the next three wideouts combined.
Although it’s easy to see why he’s favored since he’s got great hands and a knack for getting behind coverage, it’s still puzzling that other talented receivers like #10 WR Ky. Williams and #84 WR Darby haven’t gotten nearly as many targets. I think there’s a bit of target fixation from the young QB, as well as a fairly high rate of freshman mistakes in making his reads - I tallied about a 13% error rate across all of Daniels’ snaps on option plays and missing receiving targets.
Still, there’s so much talent between Aiyuk and Daniels that ASU’s passing offense is slightly above water at 104 successful plays vs 98 failed ones. Some examples:
- :00 - Here’s Aiyuk making the intermediate pass coverage just look silly.
- :16 - This RPO has multiple receiving options depending on how the defense covers it. The swing to Darby is fairly well taken away and Aiyuk is well covered before break, but the throw to Williams is wide open, and after Daniels climbs he’s got a deep shot available too. Instead he bails on all of it, tucks the ball, and scrambles for a modest gain.
- :38 - Aiyuk is good for at least one of these big passing plays every game I watched, just flying by the DBs on a simple go route.
Blitzes are fairly effective against this offense, both because the line can’t really handle them, and because Daniels has a tendency to get overwhelmed and drop his eyes or overthrow receivers even when they are picked up. Successful pass defenses against ASU all had one thing in common: a steady diet of pocket pressure. Some examples:
- :00 - Here the six-man blitz doesn’t really have a chance of getting through, but Daniels’ clock gets sped up and he doesn’t set his feet properly before attempting this deep shot. Given the coverage this requires dropping it in the bucket just right and instead this is a huge interception risk.
- :16 - This isn’t the best use of the back in pass protection, and the offense should have known this defense’s tendency on this down & distance is an all-out blitz. There’s no good outlet here and Daniels’ throw is rushed and inaccurate.
- :24 - This pass rush should look familiar to Oregon fans, but it baffles the o-line. Losoya and Cabral can’t decide which will take the tackle so neither do, West gets absolutely bullrushed, and Miller gets his first step way wrong. Daniels should have kept his eyes left and dumped the ball off immediately on the crosser, but instead panics and tries to get out the back door, and has the ball knocked out of his hand.
ASU throws screen passes on about 11% of all snaps, which is substantially higher than the rest of the league (second only to Oregon in teams I’ve studied). However, this is another area where I’ve got a beef with OC Likens, because they’re not very good at them, as they succeed only 40% of the time and frequently because they are, in my opinion, poorly designed and inappropriate for the defense and field position. A representative sample:
- :00 - This is decently blocked at the perimeter by Darby and Williams, but there’s a good chance to blow it up in the backfield if the ILB had sniffed it out quicker - which he should have done, because they run this screen or a tunnel screen every time they motion Aiyuk into trips.
- :09 - A number of teams use this play-action bootleg to a high-low read, including Oregon, but ASU’s low read is extremely low and risks just this kind of tackle for loss. It’s also another example of Daniels missing a read, since Hudson’s wide open for a 1st down and a lot more.
- :25 - Even if this screen weren’t telegraphed obviously with the motion of a never-targeted TE, and it weren’t an unforced high throw that robs Aiyuk of his momentum, it still would have been blown up because it’s being thrown to the boundary where there are seven defenders to that side of the hash.
Arizona St is something of an anomaly in the Pac-12: a far better rush defense than pass defense. Statistically, they’re ranked #19 nationally in rushing yards per game allowed. This presented an attractive riddle for your intrepid film reviewer, since as I charted them they came out at only 61 successful rush defenses vs 68 failed ones on a per-play basis, a 47% success rate that’s significantly below what most Power-5 teams achieve (well, those outside the Pac-12, anyway).
There are three parts to my solution: first, they generate tackles for loss at a somewhat higher rate than most teams do, since the structure of their defensive front tends to give opposing running backs a second to think about it and many have made the mistake of going backwards. (Sadly, I learned from Hod that one of their best d-linemen at producing TFLs, #17 DL Lea, will miss the rest of his senior season with a knee injury he took last week. That’s a real shame, he was a pleasure to watch over the years.)
Second, DC Gonzales prefers to play a 7-man box, which is somewhat unusual in a league dominated by nickel defenses. That means even when they are giving up efficiency runs, they’re still mostly stopping anything before it can break to chunk or explosive yardage - in five games I only charted them surrendering nine runs of 10 yards or longer (only three of those went for 20+, and none 30+).
Some examples of those factors:
- :00 - Against this inside zone run, ASU’s strategy of simply gumming up the works with too many bodies to block well pays off, as #90 DL Lole, #37 LB Butler, and #20 LB Kearse-Thomas get between the guards.
- :06 - This blocking scheme is simply too complex for an OL of this caliber to pull off - it requires two pull and seals, sends the LT to the other side of the TEs, and the RG has to reach block about two body lengths. #98 DL Davidson forces the C too far upfield and messes with the back, which slows him enough for Kearse-Thomas to beat him through the unblocked lane for a big TFL.
- :17 - Good hustle to the play here by #41 DL T. Johnson and #97 DL Forman - this stretch run requires the back identifying a hole and putting his foot in the ground to attack it, but nothing opens up and those two are compressing both ends of it.
The third and most important reason the rush defense gives up so few yards per game is, as Hod put it on the podcast, ASU is #115 in the country in pass defense, and why bother running when you can have whatever you want through the air? Indeed, the five ASU opponents I watched only used designed rushes on 29% of their snaps. And when ASU does lighten the box to deal with the threat of the pass, opposing offenses have a much easier time getting significant yardage:
- :00 - Four on the line and all the linebackers fairly deep, with just two between the tackles and the DBs spread out for this redzone defense. That means the offense just needs to make three blocks for a big run - the nose Forman who for some reason has edge responsibilities, Kearse-Thomas who’s far enough back that the RT can climb and cut him off, and the corner #5 DB Ko. Williams who’s handled easily by the WR.
- :09 - Here’s something I saw quite a bit - it’s only a 3-yard gain and so it looks good in the ypc stats, but it’s giving up a short-yardage conversion because ASU simply doesn’t have the size -- even when they are in position -- to keep the line and the back from pushing them off.
- :16 - ASU is expecting a pass in this down & distance, so they’re playing man coverage with two safeties deep and have only two down linemen. Kearse-Thomas, #8 LB Robertson, and #4 S Fields bite hard on the outside run possibility and there’s no one in the middle of the field to deal with the cut inside once Lole is sealed off.
And I can report those pass defense stats aren’t misleading; I charted 79 successful defenses of dropback passes vs an even 100 failures in five games. On my tally sheet ASU gave up 8.47 yards per throw, 12.06 yards per completion, 15 passing TDs, and 19 passing plays of over 20+ yards.
I saw fairly significant deficiencies in all phases of pass defense: pass rush, tackling, and coverage:
- :00 - I count six Mississippis of the QB directing receivers like an orchestral conductor without a hint of pocket pressure.
- :09 - Former 5-star and USC transfer #21 CB Jones was oddly enough the worst offender on my tally sheet, but I was seeing plays like this one -- in which he’s out of position as his eyes get caught in the backfield -- an awful lot from all the DBs.
- :23 - This fake run to the boundary checking into a tunnel screen to the field is a play I hadn’t seen USC run in any previous game, and I’m fairly sure they borrowed it from Oregon whom they had played the week before. The defense aggressively overpursues the fake and it catches the two defenders on that side of the field by surprise, and after a few missed tackles produces 25 yards.