Last week, the Texas Tech Red Raiders looked very good in a season opener, something that hasn’t happened in two years. The same can’t be said for the Arizona State Sun Devils. The final score doesn’t tell the whole tale, Northern Arizona was within striking distance until the 4th quarter. Regardless, this is a matchup fraught with things that could potentially spell doom for the Red Raiders. This is not a “gimme” game. Before we get into the meat of the matchup, let’s enjoy some good music.
This Arizona State team is definitely a little shaky in several areas, but they aren’t a shaky team overall. This is a team that knows how to run the football with a three-headed monster of Manny Wilkins, Demario Richard, and Kalen Ballage. They’re going to run a lot of the midline/read option concepts that so many teams are running these days, and they’re going to run them a lot.
On defense, they’re going to blitz you. I couldn’t find a full video of their defense vs. Northern Arizona, so I’m going off old information on this. The Sun Devils have 8 total new coaches this year, so there’s potential that they’ve changed, but their base schemes should stay the same.
Despite their 6-7 record, the Sun Devils weren’t bad last year. They were subject to a Texas A&M team that always seems to peak at the beginning of the year, a 3OT loss to Oregon, a two point loss to Cal, and a one point loss to West Virginia. They got soundly beat by A&M, USC, Washington State, and Utah, but there were some games in there that definitely could’ve gone either way.
The Sun Devils mostly line up in the spread, and we’ll see a lot of these bunch formations as they try to confuse the young Texas Tech linebackers. Manny Wilkins is a threat on the ground, but how good he is in the air remains to be seen. We know he can do this, but he also went 20/27 for 180 yards and 1 INT. That’s not exactly where you want to be a quarterback to be, but Wilkins is still functional.
Kalen Ballage is going to be an absolute problem. He’s 6’3, 230 pound of beefcake running back coming directly downhill. That’s tough for anyone to stop, much less a team that has issues stopping the run.
As far as film goes, we’re going to look at some Cal tape for this one. ASU lines up in a 3-4, pushing a linebacker slightly over the tackle to the “5” slot to make up for the lack of a defensive end when the line shifts either way. They line straight up too, utilizing a true noseguard, and pushing their outside linebackers to the line of scrimmage.
Arizona State was pretty deep at linebacker before a spat of injuries and off-field concerns took some of their linebackers away. Salamo Fiso might still be subject to discipline, and while Christian Sam is practicing, there’s a chance that he won’t be game ready for Saturday.
WHY I’M WORRIED
Arizona State doesn’t throw the ball much, but boy can they run it well. Ballage is built to annihilate, and their offense is exactly the type that we’ve struggled with in recent years. Defensively, if their blitzes connect, watch out. I like the way Arizona State plays football, it’s a very high risk/high reward style that Todd Graham has tailored to the point that they hit the high reward fairly often.
WHY I’M NOT WORRIED
It’s exactly that style of football that this Texas Tech Red Raiders team is built to exploit. You cannot blitz this version of the Air Raid and expect to have sustained success, and you can’t sit back in coverage either, because we have a guy by the name of Justin Stockton waiting in the backfield. We’re stacked on offense. All we need is a couple of early game drive crushers from a defense that looks to be improved, and we should be in the driver’s seat.
Here’s a defensive scheme I think could trip us up, the fake blitz.
Cal and Jared Goff handle it well here, they get the ball out quick enough to where the blitzers don’t have time to get into coverage. With Texas Tech’s use of out routes and swing passes, I don’t think we’ll see many, if any, blitzes in the A and B gaps. However, if these blitzes are faked towards the outside, and the defenders drop out more parallel to the line of scrimmage, this will be a problem. Of course, we can always just throw to the man over the middle, I’m just illustrating a point here. We won’t always beat the blitz, and Arizona State blitzes are different from regular blitzes. There are ways the Sun Devils can hurt us here.
The blitz matchups are always tough to preview, because both teams end up scheming for each other’s weaknesses, and things they’ve done in the past change. However, the one thing I think Arizona State will port over from their blitz scheme is to fake the blitz and drop into the short flats on either side.
The good news is that in the run game, Arizona State can struggle to get off their blocks at times.
Here we see them in their base 3-4. The outside linebacker does a pretty solid job of getting off his block, and is the only reason the running back was touched before gaining at least seven yards. The rest of the defense got stood up and trapped, which is a good omen for the Texas Tech run game. Justin Stockton doesn’t need a huge amount of space to get his yards or touchdowns, just a little.
I’ve talked about it a little before, but I really think we can exploit this ASU defense on the ground. Their aggression and lack of depth at linebacker play into our hands, as Texas Tech has a veritable stable of running backs. We’ll take some negative plays, yes, the attacking nature of this defense will force around 4 runs of negative yards. The rest of them should go for six-eight yards a pop.
On offense, the Sun Devils have a couple things in the playbook that scare me immensely, one of them being how well they run the quarterback draw.
This is one of the better executed quarterback draws I’ve seen in a long time. Everyone gets just enough of their man to allow Wilkins to slip through untouched while still remaining disengaged enough to get downfield and block. The wide receivers execute the fake perfectly, and you don’t see anyone from the fake screen side of the field other than other than the linebacker who was on the stop route, and he had a 10-15 yard head start over everyone else.
All in all, that’s a well executed play that I think we see more of in the future. Draws and misdirections have hurt the Red Raiders immensely in the past, but if they’ve prepared adequately for them, it might not be a concern. Last year, Arkansas ran these kinds of draw plays out of an I-Formation almost exclusively, and the Red Raiders were able to play well against the run.
If you want to see why I’m worried about Ballage, look no further than our next play.
This isn’t the only thing I think we see. The power of Ballage is intriguing to me, but I also see that bunch formation becoming a big deal for ASU as well. They might try and hit a few outside runs, or fool our young linebackers with fake screens, they could easily hit some big run plays like this one right up the A gap. I’d be that we see this formation at least 7 times during our matchup.
I don’t think Arizona State gets a lot of credit, at least on the national scale. I like the way they play defense, it’s easy to be attracted to a team that plays very aggressively. If Texas Tech is able to harness and control that aggression, there should be no way that Arizona State is able to stop the Red Raiders defensively. Texas Tech has several blitzbeating route combinations in the arsenal, and should break off some huge chunks of yardage. Offensively, I think the Sun Devils get some points. I don’t think this is an indictment of the Red Raider defense, I think that by the end of the year the Sun Devils could have three 1,000 yard rushers. They’re a better team right now than they’re given credit for, and they’re a better team than the team that needed to pull away from Northern Arizona in the 4th quarter. However, I don’t think they can do enough on offense to win. Patrick Mahomes has too many intangibles. In a game that is mostly uncomfortable, Texas Tech wins by a comfortable margin.
FINAL SCORE PREDICTION
Texas Tech 56
Arizona State 28