TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State's defense was arguably the best at attacking opposing offenses in 2012.
The Sun Devils finished either first or second nationally in sacks and tackles-for-loss. The other team that was either first (in sacks) or second to ASU (in tackle-for-loss) was Stanford, who the Sun Devils will face this Saturday.
The fifth-ranked Cardinal once again boast one of the elite defenses in the nation, a fearsome 3-4 scheme that attacks opposing offenses from all angles.
ASU has the playmaking talent one offense to score some points on Stanford, but their success will be dependent on the play of their offensive line up front to give them the holes and time to succeed.
I talked with ASU's offensive line coach Chris Thomsen on how his unit has played through the first two games, the potent dangers Stanford presents, and how he is planning to slow down the Cardinal.
The offensive line so far:
Through two weeks, the offensive line has continued to gel together, seeing the expected highs and lows of a new group coming together.
One area of concern so far is the ground game, where ASU is averaging just 3.2 yards-per-carry so far. They have been better in pass protection, with the starters giving up just a pair of sacks, but there have been too many times when Taylor Kelly has felt pressure.
The talent level on the line is much better than their results thus far, and Thomsen sees plenty of room to grow.
Coach Thomsen: "From a positive standpoint, I think we’ve done a good job of being on the right people and not turning people loose. You always worry about that in the first couple of games. In Week 2, we played with a lot better tempo and played faster up front.
"I want to see us get off the ball better in the run game, a more vertical push. In pass protection, we need to be technically sound with what we’re doing with our hands."
The new starters on the right side:
In left tackle Evan Finkenberg, left guard Jamil Douglas, and center Kody Koebensky, the Sun Devils have the same talented group who has started the last 15 games for the team in place.
However, the right side is comprised of new starters in guard Vi Teofilo and tackle Tyler Sulka. There have been some growing pains, but Thomsen likes what he sees on the right side.
Coach Thomsen: "Sulka, I thought in the first game played a little tentative. Trying not to mess up, which is typical of a guy in his first game. In the Wisconsin game, I thought he turned it loose a little bit and was a little more confident. He just needs to gain confidence.
"Vi, I thought he played pretty well up front. I thought he came off the ball pretty good, and did pretty good in pass protection. I think he is progressing well."
Wisconsin as practice for Stanford:
Both Wisconsin and Stanford run 3-4 defenses that are built on bringing pressure to the offense, and there is significant benefit to seeing this scheme in back-to-back weeks.
Coach Thomsen: "It was good because the first game was more 4-down front, 4-3 stuff, and a lot of training camp was that. We didn’t get to see a lot of 3-4. There were some different angles and different combination blocks within a 3-4 that are different than a 4-3. Playing a 3-4 team two weeks in a row, it helps with some of those angles that are awkward in that defense. There’s a lot of good carryover from last week that should help us."
The Stanford front seven:
Stanford's front seven is an immensely skilled group, and the Cardinal linebackers may be the best single position unit in the conference.
Outside linebacker Trent Murphy is coming off a 10-sack year and first team All-Pac-12 honors, Shayne Skov is an elite player on a number of award watch lists, and A.J. Tarpley returns after a 66-tackle season. The line boasts 2012 second team All-Pac-12 defense end Ben Gardner.
There are no easy breaks anywhere.
Coach Thomsen: "They are well coached. They line up in different spots because they know all of the positions. They are interchangeable. They play very well with their. That’s probably the thing I notice the most. They are technicians in what they do. They are long. They are 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6 guys for the most part. That length creates problems for you, because they can get their hands on you."
Handling a hostile environment:
This will be ASU's first road game of the year, and while the Stanford fans are not known as the loudest or craziest in the conference, they are expecting a sellout and should provide a difficult and noisy reception for ASU's offense.
Coach Thomsen: "We’ve had the crowd noise on our side and that’ll flip. Communication is going to be at a premium. I’ve never played at their stadium, so I don’t know how loud it gets. I’m sure on third down it will get disruptive. You must communicate louder and clearer than ever when you are in that situation. That will be a huge factor."
What Stanford brings in the pass rush and how to slow it down:
No team sacked the quarterback more often last year than Stanford, and while they have just four on the year, some of that is due to playing Army last week.
The Cardinal defense will frequently move players to various spots during a drive, and mix alignment up pre-snap. They can bring pressure off the edges, up the middle, from their line, linebackers, or secondary. If a pressure scheme can be imagined, Stanford probably runs it.
Coach Thomsen: "They do some schematic things that are really difficult. Some of the twist games they run, some of the field blitz pressures with twists incorporated into them, some of those are tough. We just have to play fast, see it coming, and play with our eyes. There are some things you can do protection-wise to combat that stuff, but we have to communicate well and get ourselves in the right look."
Running the ball:
Stanford will be missing a key player on the line in Henry Anderson, a defensive end who had 13 tackles-for-loss last year. Army was able to run with some success last week, posting 284 yards and a healthy 4.7 yards-per-carry average.
With talented backs in Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, ASU can grind out an effective running back, and given Stanford's pass rushing acumen, it will be key for the Sun Devils not remain a balanced offense.
Whether they can do so starts with the line.
Coach Thomsen: "We’ll just do what we do. We’re a zone team. We’re a power team. We’ll run those things. The main thing is to get leverage and pad level like any other game. Those guys do a great job of getting low and using their hands. You must get pad under pad and move your feet and create some space for the backs. Create some angles in the run game that help you."
At the end of the day...
This battle in the trenches will likely be the biggest factor in determining a winner, and Thomsen breaks it down to a few critical elements.
"Communication is going to be huge. Not just crowd noise, but they have some exotic looks that they get into. It’s easy to draw this stuff up on paper, but you have to communicate it during the game. We just got play hard. We need to match their intensity for four quarters."\