By: Ed Cole
There was so much talk about the Sun Devil defense and how effective it could be over a 12+ game season with it basically being gutted with nine starters from last year’s group having departed.
Their first chance to prove themselves came on Thursday night at Sun Devil Stadium, as they hosted Weber State in the season opener.
For the most part, the defense got the job done, allowing the Wildcats just 308 yards of total offense and 14 first downs. That helped the Sun Devils rampage Weber State 45-14.
The first team defense set the tone for the game, holding the Wildcat offense at one point to zero yards in the first quarter. Weber State eventually got positive yardage, but by the time they were able to scrape and claw for anything resembling a positive gain, the Sun Devils were already ahead, which made it harder for the Wildcats to try and mount a scoring drive.
“Coach [Keith] Patterson and I said ‘You know what? We got to get these guys ready to play,’” head coach Todd Graham said. “We ran a lot of exotic stuff tonight, I’m talking they’re motioning, we’re checking and checking back and rolling the coverage.”
To the Wildcats credit, they never folded, despite being huge underdogs in the game.
Toward the end of the first quarter and into the beginning of the second quarter, Weber State put together a nice drive beginning at their own 25-yard line. They took it all the way down to the Sun Devil four-yard line. The Wildcats eventually got down to the one-yard line, but couldn’t punch it in on 4th-and-1. Arizona State would turn right around and drive 99 yards the other way for a touchdown, which gave them a 24-0 lead.
That drive wouldn’t have happened were it not for the efforts of the defense on that goal-line stand.
“A lot of people had question marks about how we were gonna come out defensively,” Graham said. “I would tell you just from a defensive standpoint, I felt like we had a good night.”
“We learned a lot of things, we got better, we dominated a team we should dominate and our guys get after you,” Graham said.
Freshman D.J. Calhoun got the start at the WILL linebacker position and fared very well in his collegiate debut. Calhoun had five tackles, with one of them going for a two-yard loss. Graham had nothing but praise for his young linebacker.
“He is strong and tough, I just love him,” Graham said. “You talk about a joy to coach during the game, I just love the guy, he was awesome.”
It’s a lot for a young man like Calhoun to shoulder, taking on that much responsibility in front of a huge television audience and 52,133 looking on inside Sun Devil Stadium.
The main thing that ran through Calhoun’s mind before and during the game: focus.
“Just keeping focus,” Calhoun said. “Because you just focus on the crowd, and when you come out you have all that adrenaline running through your body.”
“Once you make that first hit, you just start settling down and you just play yourself,” Calhoun said.
Having to replace nine starters from last year’s squad wasn’t easy for Graham and his staff, but they seemingly have. Throughout the season, there’s going to be ups and downs having 11 freshmen on that side of the ball, as they figure out their roles and get settled into the system. The second and third team defenses certainly had their fair share of struggles in the opener.
“Tackling at times with the twos and threes was a little sloppy,” Graham said.
Despite all the mistakes, Graham’s in a good place with his defense, simply for the fact that his young pups want to learn and get better, which can make the errors somewhat forgivable.
“They’re not afraid at all,” Graham said. “I love how they attack things, I love how they listen, they’re like ‘Feed me Coach.’”
“They want to learn, they want to be great, I really like that,” Graham said.