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Arizona State’s defense a huge bright spot on a struggling team

© Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK
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You would think after ASU’s first shutout loss at home since 1988 that the Sun Devils would have nothing good to takeaway from the game.

That may be the case for the offense, who surrendered eight turnovers, but it is quite the opposite for the defense.

Arizona State’s defense set a unique record in Saturday’s 29-0 loss to Fresno State.

The Sun Devils allowed the fewest amount of points (15) off turnovers of any FBS team since at least 2012 when committing eight or more turnovers.

Fresno State’s only two touchdowns came on the Bulldogs’ opening offensive drives of each half. None came after turnovers despite a few takeaways leaving them deep in ASU territory.

“That’s what we’re here for,” senior safety Chris Edmonds said of the defense. “We’re a team so if they’re not playing good, we have to pick it up ourselves. Just how we were playing good, we expect them to do the same. We’re a team. We win or lose together.”

The defense really impressed ASU coach Kenny Dillingham.

“You have eight turnovers and you give up 29 points, it’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever been apart of,” Dillingham said. “If we would have just punted on offense, we would have probably had a better football game.”

Arizona State’s full individual defensive stats against Fresno State

Injuries not a problem for the defense

The Sun Devils face a combined 17 (at least) injuries either from players who did not suit up last week or were injured during the game. However, only two of these players come from the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive end Clayton Smith injured his left foot during the first quarter Saturday, and defensive lineman Anthoine Cooper has missed every game this season with an injury. Potential starting safety Xavion Alford was also ruled ineligible for the season. 

These are the only three players out on the defensive side of the ball for ASU right now.

It is clear that the defense’s sustained health has helped the players settle into their roles.

Even backups like junior defensive end Prince Dorbah, who filled in for Smith after he went down, are making plays. Dorbah had two of ASU’s six sacks on Saturday.

Brian Ward’s system coming to life

Entering Saturday, ASU ranked 84th in the country in sacks. Now, this ranking is up to 27th nationally.

In addition to the six sacks, ASU had eight tackles for loss. The Sun Devils are now ranked 23rd in the country in run defense and 34th in total defense, according to

Defensive coordinator Brian Ward, who came over from Washington State this offseason and is known for his unique pressure schemes, finally got to dial some up against the Bulldogs.

Three of ASU’s sacks were off of defensive back blitzes. Junior cornerback Ro Torrence had two and senior safety Shamari Simmons had one.

“Coach Ward is very aggressive and Coach Ward is going to constantly try to create pressure on the quarterback,” Dillingham said after the game. “I think we did that tonight, especially when we got them into long-yard scenarios at the end of the half. We took a penalty so that we could play third down again instead of making it fourth down because I knew that fits into our defensive style. It forced them to make an intentional grounding and we saved three points off the board. That happened multiple times, our defense just playing aggressive and playing with confidence. That got them off the field.”

Torrence’s big day got him some praise from Dillingham, especially after a disappointing Week Two for the preseason honorable mention All-Pac-12 cornerback.

“Schematically, (he) was getting free, credit to the defensive coaching staff, and then Ro making the play,” Dillingham said. “Because it’s one thing to be there and to call the right thing. It’s another thing to execute and make the play, and Ro kept getting it done. So I was proud of him, he responded really well to last week’s game for him, and he played a really nice game.”

Torrence’s teammates took notice of his performance as well.

“He’s just playing hard, playing good football,” senior nickel back Jordan Clark said. “He’s showing the disguises we need to. Ultimately Coach Ward is a mastermind, so whatever he calls, we run.”

Ward set a goal of 40 sacks for ASU’s defense before the season. This means the Sun Devils need to average nearly four sacks per game the remainder of the season to hit this mark. Can they do it against the elite offenses of the Pac-12?

WATCH: ASU Defensive Players Recap 29-0 Loss to Fresno State

The defense entered Saturday as one of the best in the Pac-12

Don’t get it twisted, Saturday’s defensive performance was not a one time thing. Arizona State has been playing well the entire season on that side of the ball.

Heading into Saturday, ASU was 25th nationally and third in the Pac-12 allowing just 265.0 yards of total defense per game this season.

Some other key figures from ASU’s game notes last week:

“The Sun Devil defense has allowed just 16 total plays over ten yards this season, 10th in the FBS.”

“B.J. Green III has ten quarterbacks pressures this season, tied for 15th among all FBS defensive linemen.”

Ward’s scheme is clearly working for the Sun Devils. ASU was expected to be a dominant offensive team under Dillingham, not defensive, but this has not been the case.

The Sun Devils have increased their sack total every game and don’t appear to be slowing down in the amount of pressure they are generating each game. This being said, there is one glaring area where ASU has been significantly outperformed.

Arizona State season team comparison stats (via ASU athletics)

Ok, but the Sun Devils have forced 0 turnovers?

The Sun Devils have not recorded a single forced turnover this year. Arizona State is ranked dead last in the NCAA with a -9 turnover margin.

Arizona State has recorded an interception in 17 of their last 22 games. However, three of the five games they haven’t have come this year.

Today, Dillingham offered his thoughts on why the Sun Devils have failed to record a stat in that category.

“I think when you’re early in a scheme, that’s a pressure scheme with a lot of man eyes,” Dillingham said. “Guys aren’t as comfortable getting their eyes off of a guy, right, as quickly or they’re not as comfortable in the scheme, and when you’re not as comfortable in the scheme yet, you’re going to have a less likelihood of seeing tip passes of getting your hands on balls and stuff like that.

“I think as we progress in the scheme, you’re going to continue to see the aggressiveness and the attacking. I think you’ll see the back end get more and more comfortable … I think their eyes will allow them to make more of those plays than they do now, but I think that’s a comfort level in the scheme with the pattern matching and everything just having full comfort. I think that will come naturally as we progress.”

Besides forcing turnovers, everything seems to be clicking for the Sun Devil defense right now. The big question is if the offense can give them any help, as they are missing several offensive linemen and may be down to their fourth-string quarterback. Scoring 0 points, which the Sun Devils have done over the last six quarters, will not help the defense at all.

Can ASU keep it up against one of the best offenses in the country in USC on Saturday and prove to everyone on national television that they are one of the best defenses in the Pac-12?

Kenny Dillingham With High Praise on Caleb Williams: “One of the Best Quarterbacks For Sure While I’ve Been Coaching Football”

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Brendan Mau is a Phoenix Suns insider and college sports reporter for Burn City Sports. You can follow him on X via @Brendan_Mau

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