Arizona State's top ranked sacking defense poses a challenge for the Wildcat front five.
Arizona State tackle Will Sutton is one of the premiere pass rush defenders in college football. Were it not for an injury suffered on the first possession vs. Oregon on Oct. 17, he might very well lead the nation in sacks. As it is, he has an impressive 10.5.
Sutton is almost a one-man blitz package on his own. Combine his abilities with those of linebackers Brandon Magee and Carl Bradford, as well as end Junior Onyeali, and the concern Rich Rodriguez expressed at his weekly press conference is justified.
"It's over 50 percent of the time that they bring pressure, but they also bring pressure without blitzing," he said. "In the last game [ASU's 47-7 win over Washington State], they had a three-man rush which brought a lot of pressure.
"They have great defensive players like Will Sutton, who is a potential first-round draft pick," Rodriguez continued. "They are a big pressure team. They are able to get pressure without bringing extra guys and that is a big concern for us."
ASU is the most prolific sacking team in the nation, with a ridiculous 47 combined. Dialing up pressure is a calling card of Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham. His Pittsburgh team was No. 3 in the nation with 43 sacks a season ago; his Tulsa teams never ranked out of the top 50 from 2008 to 2010.
Rodriguez's zone-read spread offense is designed to lure away defenders on play action, and give the quarterback options should the pocket collapse. A veteran Wildcat line has largely been successful protecting quarterback Matt Scott, but a worrisome sign for UA heading into the 2012 installment of the Duel in the Desert is in its last loss, Arizona surrendered four sacks. That's nearly one-fourth of the team's total yield this season.
UCLA brought an aggressive approach that stifled Arizona from the outset, and ultimately knocked Scott out of the game. The Bruins were also successful in getting to the backfield to snuff out rushes, accruing eight total tackles for loss.
Expect a similarly tenacious pursuit from the Sun Devils, though that's hardly a deviation from their typical game plan. The blitz won't come as a surprise, but the challenge is addressing it.
UCLA and Oregon effectively countered the rush with stellar performances from their tailbacks. Johnathan Franklin and Kenjon Barner both had standout efforts in leading their teams to 45 and 43 points against the Sun Devils; Rodriguez and co-offensive coordinators Calvin Magee and Rod Smith will find opportunities for Ka'Deem Carey.
However, the Wildcats must first spread the Sun Devils out of the box. That means establishing an effective passing game early. Since ASU will seek to dial in pressure, look for Scott to throw quick passes on shallow slant routes and screens early.
Such was the game plan Oregon employed against ASU, which eventually gave dual threat quarterback Marcus Mariota breathing room to roll off nearly 13 yards per rushing attempt. Arizona won't enjoy the same luxury of facing a Sun Devil defense sans Sutton and Onyeali as Mariota did, but the passing principle remains largely in tact.
Scott's effective passing has typically made Arizona difficult to defend, manifested in a 37.5 point per game average. UA's is as balanced an attack as any there is in the Pac-12, a deviation from past Rodriguez-coached teams. Former Rodriguez assistant Graham touched on that when speaking with media this week.
"You study them and things evolve and people do different things over periods of times," he said "So they are probably as familiar with what we are doing as we are with them."
Translation: facing Rodriguez's offenses in practice a decade ago will mean next-to-nothing on Friday. Similarly, Arizona enjoys no schematic advantage from past connections to the ASU staff, including Magee's to Graham as Pittsburgh offensive coordinator a season ago.
Game planning from the past that can benefit Arizona on Friday, however, is last week's preparation for Utah. Against the Utes, the Wildcat front five faced a stout rush defense anchored at tackle. The line limited likely first round NFL Draft pick Star Lutolelei's impact, giving Carey room to break 200 yards rushing in a 34-24 Wildcat. Similar containment of Sutton is key to the offense Saturday.
Yet even in that, Lutolelei and Sutton are strikingly different players. Both are destined for Sundays, but Lutolelei is a space-eater who tips the scales at well over 300 pounds; at around 270 pounds, Sutton is lighter on his feet and quicker -- almost like a linebacker positioned up front.