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September 14, 2011

Sun Devils focused on wrapping up Illinois

The Arizona State defense had as many missed tackles in its win against Missouri as there are days in February. Fitting, perhaps, because it appeared at times as though that was the month the Sun Devils defense was stuck in.

Flag football anyone?

"We counted 28 (missed tackles)," senior defensive tackle Bo Moos said. "We are a physical defense, so it is just not like us."

Naturally, the Sun Devil defense and coaching staff dissected Friday's game film over the weekend, but rarely do players articulate specific numbers, in this instance one could say advanced statistics, for the media.

"Coach (Craig) Bray did the math, and they had 180 rushing yards and they would have had 43 had we wrapped up when we were supposed to wrap up," Moos said.

It's safe to say that whatever message Erickson, Bray and his staff gave to the defense, it resonated.

For all formation variation, shifting, speed and disciplined offensive line play that the Illinois offense presents a defense, the overriding theme for this week is one similar to that heard across pee-wee fields all over America -- tackle the guy with the ball.

"We are a fast defense and sometimes we over-pursue," linebacker Shelly Lyons said. "We overran a lot of stuff on Saturday and even when we were there we just didn't wrap up. We were trying to go for kill shots and those things happen. They are over with and now we are going to change it and do much better on Saturday."

Perhaps epitomizing the Sun Devils' problems best on Friday was a play in the third quarter. Middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict had once again timed his blitz as though he had stepped into the future and downloaded the play into his brain, coming across the line of scrimmage at near full speed as the ball was snapped. He bored in on Missouri running back Henry Josey just as he received the hand-off seven yards deep in the backfield. Instead of breaking down, bending his knees, keeping his head back, wrapping up and exploding his hips through the ball carrier, Burfict's posture was closer to erect than crouched, his head came down as he neared the ballcarrier, and he led with the right shoulder.

It was an embarrassing whiff for a player who was talked about throughout Friday's telecast for his intimidation and dominance.

But more importantly, the play completely changed the dynamic of the possession, as Missouri went from what should have been a second and 17 to a second and two.

"We are coming out this week and working on wrapping up on the ball carrier," Moos said. "It is something we can shore up just with a quick talk. I think that we were just kind of thinking too much and at the point of attack we just weren't finishing."

The problem is that Illinois is likely to give the Sun Devils more to think about than the Tigers did. For one, they feature a significantly more complex offense that runs plays out of myriad formations. And then just to see how confused the defense really is, they'll hit it with an option, a play that tests the discipline of every defensive player to the side of the field it's run on.

"If you know your responsibility and handle you responsibility, the option is something that is not too difficult to deal with," Moos said. "But once you start getting out of your responsibility, that's when they can get a big one on you. They do it, do it, do it until they get a big one on you."

Compounding the problem for the ASU defense is that unlike Missouri, which had gone deep into its roster to find a healthy running back, the Fightin' Illini feature three, perhaps four, qualified and capable runners, including both the power and agility/speed variety.

That's before you get to their quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who has 140 yards in about six quarters this year.

"He is a great athlete who can really run," Erickson said. "He's not as big as (James) Franklin but probably a little more evasive, a little faster, not as big but he is a very accurate thrower."

To get an idea of how prolific Illinois is running the ball, consider is has had over 200 yards in seven straight games, averaging well over 300 yards in that span (including 519 yards against Northwestern last year). Not included in that streak is the 282 yards it put on Penn State in Beaver Stadium. Further illustrating the point: ASU had just over 100 yards on 31 carries against a banged-up Missouri. Illinois racked up 200 yards on 41 carries against a healthier and arguably more talented Missouri front seven last year.

If the ASU defense is semblance on Saturday of what it was Friday, it's likely to yield a number so large that the defensive statistics would not likely recover the rest of the season -- let alone the squad's psyche.

"We will be a lot better this Saturday, I promise you that," Lyons said.

Just. Don't. Think.

Right?

"They really are a formation-changing team; they do a lot of different things, that's the issue," Erickson said. "They'll run the read-zone stuff, they'll be in four-wides, they'll get in two tight ends and do some different things, they'll be in the shotgun, they'll be underneath the center. They're a variation of formation and they do a lot of different things. Like I say though, they'll get in the eye and run the football and they'll get into four-wide and run the spread."


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