The Arizona State Sun Devil defense is coordinated by Keith Patterson, now in his second season in Tempe. Patterson came to Arizona State from West Virginia where he served in the same position and has a close relationship with Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham, as the two are old college roommates. Make no mistake, Patterson may be the coordinator, but this is Todd Graham's defense. Graham served as defensive coordinator at Tulsa and defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at West Virginia before becoming a head coach.
Graham and Patterson run a hybrid 3-4 defense, commonly showing a 3-3-5 look. The Sun Devils are aggressive in their blitz tendencies and constantly vary their defensive personnel location and alignment to disguise their frequent blitzes. The Sun Devils have 19 sacks this season, tying them for 7th in the nation, and are 3rd in the country in tackles for a loss with 56 tackles. Their aggressiveness has caused three forced fumbles this season, and has the team averaging 3.17 sacks per game.
The defensive line is anchored by senior nose tackle Demetrius Cherry. Standing 6-6 and weighing 300lbs., Cherry is a mountain of a man, who can eat up a lot of space in the middle and hold the point of attack at the line of scrimmage. Cherry is versatile for a nose tackle, with 8 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks and 2 pass break ups. He is also athletic for a big man, returning a fumble 18 yards against Texas A&M.
Arizona State's other big interior player on the defensive line is Tashon Smallwood. The sophomore is 6-1 280 lbs. has 23 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks. Smallwood is beginning to come into his own as a sophomore and has received some comparisons to former Sun Devil great Will Sutton. The end position is manned by freshman JoJo Wicker who has 11 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks and a forced fumble.
The linebackers for this Sun Devil team are at the heart of their aggressive scheme. Redshirt junior Salamo Fiso is the leader of the linebacking group playing as the "SAM" linebacker. He is third in the Pac-12 with 50 total tackles, first in conference with 10.5 tackles for a loss and has one sack. Sophomore Christian Sam has seen time at the "Will" linebacker position this season, and is third in conference with 47 tackles, has 3.5 tackles for a loss and has three sacks. Senior linebacker Antonio Longino plays a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role and is a threat off the edge. He trails only Fiso in the conference with 9.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. Junior Viiami Laiu Moeakiola rounds out the group as more of a linebacker/safety, able to drop back in coverage, but still provide run support. He has 34 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss and a sack.
Senior safety Jordan Simone and cornerback Lloyd Carrington headline the aggressive Arizona State secondary. Simone, leads the Sun Devils in tackles with 51 tackles and two interceptions. Carrington has 22 tackles, four pass breakups and a sack. Safety Armand Perry figured to play a big role in the secondary this season, but sustained an ankle injury in week two against Cal Poly and has not played since. He is not expected to play on Saturday against Utah.
One of the main battles on Saturday will be Devontae Booker and the Utah offensive line against Arizona State's run defense. This is Arizona's State's best run defense since Todd Graham arrived on campus in 2011 and should provide a good challenge for the Utah offense.
At first glance Arizona State's run defense doesn't look all that imposing, ranking 45th in the country allowing 138.8 yards per game. Upon closer inspection however, the defense only gives up 3.32 yards per attempt, ranking them 24th in the country in yards per carry. Another important factor to consider, is two of their games came against both Cal Poly and New Mexico, both heavy run teams. Over the course of this season, Arizona State has seen opposing teams run on 57% of the plays from scrimmage, driving up their total yardage numbers despite being strong against the run. Furthermore in the Sun Devil's past three games, all against Pac-12 south competition, they are giving up just 2.21 yards per carry and just 63 yards rushing per game.
Conversely, the defense is softer against the pass, ranking 91st and allowing 244 yards per game. However, much like the running statistics, these numbers are a bit skewed because they factor in the Cal Poly an New Mexico games. If you remove both of those, Arizona State is giving up 326.8 yards passing per game, and 353.3 yards per game in the last three games against Pac-12 teams.
The good news for Arizona State is Utah's passing attack does not rival any of the other Pac-12 south opponents they have faced thus far. Other good news for the Sun Devils is they have already proven they can stop a top running back. Against UCLA's Paul Perkins, arguably the other top back besides Booker in the Pac-12, the Sun Devil defense held him to a season low 3.5 yard per carry average. He finished UCLA's loss to the Arizona State with just 63 yards on 18 carries and one touchdown.
What does this mean for Utah? It means Booker will need some help on Saturday. Travis Wilson and the receiving corps will need to revert back to Oregon game form and take advantage of what the Arizona State defense gives up in the passing game. Wilson will need to keep his composure as he will be under pressure much of the night with the Sun Devils usually bringing at least five pass rushers on any given play.
The benefit of Arizona State bringing constant pressure is there will be fewer pass defenders and Wilson could have some success if he gets the ball out to his receivers quickly. Also look for Booker to be used on screen passes and short routes out of the backfield to relieve pressure on Wilson and give Booker space to run with the ball. Booker probably won't be able to replicate the 222 yards rushing he had last week, but his ability catching the ball could be a key factor. The X-factor for the game will again be Travis Wislon, as his ability to move the ball through the air could very well determine if the Utes move on to 6-0.