Calhoun looking to keep momentum going for ASU defense

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Calhoun (4) celebrates a big play against Weber State. By Christian Petersen Calhoun (4) celebrates a big play against Weber State. By Christian Petersen
Calhoun sacks USC QB Cody Kessler By Brad Denny Calhoun sacks USC QB Cody Kessler By Brad Denny

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was do or die. Stop them, and there was hope, however faint. Allow a first down, and the reign as Pac-12 South champions would essentially be on borrowed time.

Trailing 34-32 with no timeouts and just 2:34 left against USC, the Arizona State defense needed a quick three and out as the Trojans took over at the Sun Devil 44-yard line. On their previous play just minutes earlier, the ASU defense allowed a 53-yard touchdown run. 

Before the defense took the field for what could prove to be a season-saving drive, a true freshman helped rally his teammates for the moment.

"We had to get a stop," said linebacker D.J. Calhoun. "When we came out, I talked to my defense, and Salamo (Fiso) did too. We said 'We all have to come together. This is our heart. This is our team. This is our defense, and defense makes plays.'"

Make plays they did. The first two Trojan runs went nowhere, and on the key third and 10, Calhoun and Jaxon Hood combined to drop Buck Allen for a two-yard loss. The rest is history.

That stand capped off an encouraging rebound performance. A week after being gashed for 48 points and 580 yards in the embarrassing home loss to UCLA, Calhoun and the young Sun Devil defense put forth a much better showing in toppling then-No. 16 USC on the road.

"We just did the same thing. Our week of preparation and practice was great," Calhoun said. "We came out knowing we needed a big game. The loss against UCLA really hurt us. I knew personally that I wasn't going to let my seniors lose this one at all."

Calhoun had the best night of his very young ASU career, making a season-high 9.5 tackles and a team-high 2.5 tackles for loss, including his first career sack.

It was his fifth straight start in as many games for the former 4-star recruit. While he has shown the struggles that any true freshman thrust into such an important role will experience, Calhoun has made steady improvement each week. 

"The season overall has been an adventure," Calhoun said. "It's been crazy, it's way different than high school. Overall, I feel like I've improved every game. I love it."

The USC game also represented another advance towards remedying a season-long failing of the ASU defense.

Over the last two seasons, the Sun Devils have been among the nation's best at generating sacks and tackles-for-loss, but through the first four weeks, the pressure has been largely absent. While ASU made a season-high 10 tackles-for-loss and had three sacks against the Trojans, the big plays aren't coming as frequently as anyone on the defense would like.

Entering this week's game against Stanford, ASU ranks 105th in turnovers gained (six), and 65th in sacks (2.0 per game).

"Every week, you just improve," said Calhoun. "I think we need to get more takeaways. We've have really gotten any takeaways. Overall, we need more big plays. We're a blitzing team, so we have to show them that Coach Graham means business. We're going to blitz you every down."

Over the bye week, ASU has experimented with different looks with their defense, moving around personnel and showing some more 4-3 looks in advance of facing the always physical Stanford attack. Those tweaks have also seen Calhoun, normally the team's WILL, getting reps at a new spot.

"We've worked on our pass coverage. We've moved a lot of people around," said Calhoun. "They have me at SPUR. A lot of new things and how we can stop them, because they are a well disciplined team."

The Cardinal come into this week's game ranked 82nd in the nation in total offense, averaging just over 389 yards per game. In particular, their struggles in the red zone have earned notoriety, as Stanford is 118th in red zone offense, converting on just under 68 percent of their possessions. 

Despite those less-than-stellar showings, Calhoun and his teammates aren't taking the defending Pac-12 champions lightly. 

"They are an old school team," Calhoun said of the Cardinal offense. "They like to run the ball. They have a couple of tight end pops, and some screens to No. 7 (Ty Montgomery)."

Calhoun was not a Sun Devil last season when Stanford defeated ASU twice, including a home defeat in the Pac-12 championship game. But he knows the importance, and intensity, that Saturday's battle with the 23rd ranked Cardinal will bring.

"It's Stanford, so you have to come in with your heads high ready to play," Calhoun said. "It's going to be a dogfight to the end. No one is expected us to whoop them. We're expecting it to be a dogfight, and every play counts."