Oregon has had its way in Thursday night match ups as of late, as they obliterated UCLA in 2010, and did the same to Cal in 2011. This year things are a little different, as the Ducks aren’t in the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium, and will have to take out a very good Arizona State team to continue their Thursday night success.
In his maiden voyage at ASU, Todd Graham has his Sun Devils over-performing in nearly every category. Freshman quarterback Taylor Kelly looks just as good, if not better, than Marcus Mariota, and the ASU defense hasn’t missed a beat without Vontaze “15 yards” Burfict. Under Kelly, the Sun Devil offense has produced some great numbers, but more importantly, has appeared efficient and rhythmic throughout the season.
Remembering back to last season, the only team to knock Oregon off, Southern Cal, controlled the ball for three quarters, and went on long, demoralizing drives to keep the game out of Oregon’s reach until the final seconds of the game. Todd Graham has already said that the Sun Devils will try to limit the amount of snaps their defense plays by controlling the ball on offense; expect ASU to be “muddling” or waiting around on the ball (much like Oregon’s offense does in the waning seconds of a game) early and often on Thursday night.
While ASU is very efficient on offense, and their play calling and tempo are in place, ASU’s actual offensive firepower is still relatively average in the national perspective. Yards, as usual, will not mean anything at the end of the game, and Oregon’s ability to keep teams from scoring — particularly after turnovers — will come in handy against ASU.
The real challenge for Oregon will come when the Ducks have the ball, as an aggressive, but calculating Sun Devil defense will represent Oregon’s biggest test to date. The first thing that jumps out at you when you are watching ASU’s defense is their tendency to bring lots of pressure with both blitzes, and traditional pass rushes.
First we’ll take a look at a few blitzes ASU dialed up against Missouri earlier this season.
In the picture above, Missouri lines up in a 3×1 set, and will run play action to the right, and the left guard will pull across the pocket in an attempt to mimic the motion of a power play. As the left guard pulls to his right, the offensive line will slide to their left to cover the gap. ASU lines up with five defenders along the line of scrimmage, indicating a blitz off right tackle. In an attempt to confuse the quarterback even further, ASU’s middle linebacker sits in a short zone rather than going man-to-man with the slot receiver that is uncovered at the snap of the ball.
When the ball is snapped, the Sun Devils do exactly what their alignment was saying they would do: send five defenders to rush the passer, and have man coverage on the exterior. The left guard pulls across the formation and identifies the biggest threat as the outside rusher, indicated by the red arrow. As the play develops, each of the defenders looks to have a lineman picking them up: the center, #63 can pick up the right defensive tackle, the right guard picks up another man, and the right tackle fills inside to complete the pocket.
Easy enough, right?
Wrong. The protection would make sense if a defender ended up in the gap that was vacated by the pulling guard, and since the defensive tackle that was originally lined up in the gap to the center’s left ended up on the other side of the center, there were four rushers coming off of the right hand side of the offensive line, where there are only four blockers. The pulling guard (indicated by the purple arrow) crosses the hash mark and has his defender lined up perfectly, but what he didn’t realize was that the line shifted too far over to the left, leaving the defensive tackle (red arrow) plenty of room to run underneath the guard, and straight to the quarterback.
The point of no return is obvious just a split second later. Against a five man rush with no additional blockers, every offensive lineman needs to pick up a defender. #63 ends up all alone, simply because he shifted too far to his left after the guard vacated his gap.
With overload blitzes to one side of the offensive line, ASU will offer plenty of challenges to Marcus Mariota and the offensive line, as communication will be a necessity to pick up the fast and aggressive Sun Devil defense. Mariota will also be responsible for passing the ball to the vacated receiver as well (duh). Zone blitzes typically have some sort of weakness depending on the secondary coverage the defense uses. In the play below, ASU will run a zone blitz with three deep defenders in the secondary.
The Sun Devils are rushing five, and their cornerback #24 will need to defend the deep third of the short field. Missouri happens to be running a staple in any passing game- the Smash play, involving a curl on the outside, and a corner route over the top of the hitch. The cornerback must respect and follow the corner route, leaving the short curl uncovered.
The pass rush, quite frankly, was pretty effective, as not one, but two defenders will be able to at least hit the quarterback on this play.
The curl route is wide open, and while the receiver was held short of the goal line, the Tigers scored two plays later.
While patience will be key for Mariota on Thursday, escaping pressure, and even taking a few sacks will be important in maintaing drives. Whatever team can find rhythm first will have the upper hand in this one, and at this point, all signs indicate yet another Oregon victory if they can dictate the game.