TEMPE, Ariz. -- They may not always win the game, but Todd Graham’s Sun Devils will never quit.
In the visitor’s locker room at Stanford Statdium last Saturday, Arizona State found themselves on the wrong end of a 29-0 halftime score that wasn’t even as close as the numbers indicated. Few would have blamed them for conceding defeat and playing out the string for the final 30 minutes with an eye towards rebounding the next week against USC.
But that is not how this Sun Devil team operates.
“(In the locker room) Coach Graham said, ‘You guys keep battling like we know ASU football plays’, so we did that,” said senior defensive end Gannon Conway. "One of the main things that Coach Graham is harping on is that we’re never going to give up. We’re going to keep battling no matter what. It’s really sad that we couldn’t do that at the beginning of the game, but we battled all the way until the end of that game.”
Showing the heart and grit to finish strong is certainly admirable, but ASU found themselves in the deficit due to a mistake-ridden first half against one of the truly elite teams in the nation.
“We started off in really bad positions in the first couple quarters. It was hard for us to get momentum going,” Conway said. “As far as the D-line goes, we were getting off the ball, and trying to make the plays that we could.”
Conway and the rest of the Sun Devils made far too few of those plays against Stanford, as they were gashed for 240 yards on the ground and could make no progress against the Cardinal offensive line.
Complicating matters, the ASU defensive front was playing shorthanded. Starting defensive tackle Jaxon Hood left the game in the first half with a leg injury, leaving a sizeable void in the lineup.
With Graham labeling Hood as “very doubtful” for this week’s game against USC, the 280-pound Conway will slide inside from end to help replace some of Hood’s reps.
“I think Gannon can hold the point—he’s 280 pounds, he’ll play some in there as well and we’ll have to do that because Mo (Latu) can’t play every down,” said Graham. “Gannon is very, very consistent for us, very steady, very smart. So he’ll probably end up playing in there as well.”
Despite the move, Conway says that Hood’s position and his share very similar assignments.
“We play like a jeep position. It’s basically the same position that I’ve been playing, a 7-technique, but with a guy that’s 30 pounds heavier,” said Conway. “It’s going to be the same fundamentals and technique. I’m going to have to really that the guy is heavier and I have to really get off and do my technique and fundamentals.”
Saturday will mark Conway’s fourth consecutive start after appearing in 16 games as a reserve during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, a feat that is equal parts impressive and surprising.
With senior Davon Coleman (10 starts at end in 2012) returning and highly touted newcomer Marcus Hardison joining the mix, Conway seemed primed to reprise his key reserve role once again in 2013.
However, Conway worked diligently over the offseason to add more muscle and played very well during spring practice to catch the coaching staff’s eye. In the fall, Conway was able to hold both players off to win the job. Through the first three games, Conway has made five tackles (one for loss).
Regardless of production, Conway is just focusing on improving his game each week.
“I feel like I’ve done a good job and I just need to get better,” Conway said. “Coach Shipp is always getting on me, so that means I’m not doing a good job. The main things that I’m always focusing on are fundamentals, technique, and getting off the ball. Those are the three things that I have to get better on every game, every play, and every rep.”
While the entire defense is looking for improvement on Saturday, one specific aspect has been getting
“It’s not really a concern,” Conway said. “Some people are just opening up more than others. Osahon Irabor is coming in now and making TFLs. We’re just going to focus on out keys and do our one-eleventh, and those TFLs and big plays will happen.”
On paper, the matchup against the USC Trojans looks like a prime opportunity for the defense to right the ship.
USC enters the game with the nation’s 106th ranked offense at just 340 yards-per-game. They’ve had some moderate success running the ball, which has helped the Trojans offset their 108th ranked passing offense. The USC offensive line has been the primary culprit to these struggles, with the Trojans ranking 89th in sacks allowed and 96th in overall tackles-for-loss given up.
“A lot of what they run is just inside-outside zone, some stretch and some pass,” said Conway. “We’ll just have to read our keys and do what we can.”
With the major Pac-12 South division battle just days away, Conway is confident that the Sun Devil defense can rise to the challenge and help get a victory.
“We’re going to battle. We’re going to start off strong. If we play like we know that we’re capable of, we’re going to be able to dominate and make plays.”