Arizona State football's defense looking for better effort in battle against USC

Michelle Gardner
Arizona Republic

When a team isn't playing well, it's easy to take a dive into the numbers to see where a team might be deficient. Arizona State defensive line coach Robert Rodriguez has always been insightful when it comes to assessing his unit which has just two sacks in four games this season and only eight over the last 11 games, with four of those coming in one game against Arizona.

Rodriguez looks more at pressure than sacks. Sometimes a team's scheme doesn't lend itself to a lot of sacks. Sometimes it's a matter of a particular quarterback just getting rid of the ball quickly. But there hasn't been enough sacks or pressure.

“We’re not a big blitz-heavy team, so our four-man pressure is gonna have to stand up against five, six, seven guys,” Rodriguez said. “There are always one-on-ones, there are always opportunities to pressure the quarterback. We have not done that at a high enough rate. Sacks, I throw out the window, but in terms of the amount of time we get in the quarterback’s lap, that hasn’t been good enough.”

The Sun Devils (1-3, 0-1) will be looking to avoid their first 1-4 start since 1976 when they hit the road for a 7:30 p.m. game against No. 6 USC (4-0, 2-0) Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

For subscribers: Scouting report: What does ASU need to do against USC?

Southern California coach Lincoln Riley applauds during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Oregon State on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Corvallis, Ore. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

The Trojans have quick strike capacity in all the skill positions with new head coach Lincoln Riley reloading through the transfer portal. His top three players are from other schools — running back Travis Dye (Oregon), wide receiver Jordan Addison (Pitt), the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, and quarterback Caleb Williams (Oklahoma).

Despite some injuries that have limited his personnel, Rodriguez is looking for more from his unit.

“I’m the first in line to say that it hasn’t been good enough. It just hasn’t been productive enough,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t judge it by sacks. If you watch the Oklahoma State game, I was pleased with how we got to the quarterback. Desperation does some bad things to pass rushers. I’ve seen it at every level. We pride ourselves on having our eyes down and our hands in front of us. The buck stops right here when it comes to that.”

Mar 23, 2022; Tempe, Arizona, USA; Arizona State defensive line coach Robert Rodriguez during spring practice at Kajikawa Practice Fields.

Rodriguez has had to adjust on the fly. Three-technique tackle Omarr Norman-Lott was injured on the first drive of the game two weeks ago against Eastern Michigan and will miss a second straight game. 

Rodriguez has opted to go with a lineup that includes both Nesta Jade Silvera and T.J. Pesefea, who had been rotating at nose tackle. Silvera recorded 12 tackles last week, a particularly high total for an interior lineman. Tackle B.J. Green has practiced some this week with the defensive ends.

"They got playmakers from all levels," Silvera said. "Definitely been some growing pains, stopping the run but it starts upfront with us. We got to be able to stop that, stop them at the line of scrimmage. We have to do what we've been coached to do."

Related: ASU offense hoping for comeback vs. USC after rough outing against Utah

ASU defender Nesta Jade Silvera (4) drags down Utah's Jaylon Glover (1) at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.

While pressure on the passer has been one key issue, so has the ability to stop the run. ASU gave up 458 total yards to Eastern Michigan, 305 of that coming on the ground. Last week the Sun Devils surrendered 465, with 205 of that on the ground. In both games, the opponent averaged 6.3 yards per play.

Despite eerily similar numbers in the last two games, Defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson was more pleased with the showing in the 34-13 loss to Utah last Saturday. He says success this week will come down to execution.

“I was thrilled with this game how we played the first three quarters. We gave up a couple of touchdowns, a broken play and a long boot coming back across the field to the tight end,” he said. “Other than that, we just have to do a lot better job of tackling that’s what it comes down to. It wasn’t as bad as you think. However, it still needs to be improved.”

All say it will come down to assignment football since USC isn't one-dimensional.

“They have a lot of good athletes, and they do a great job stretching the field and attacking you vertically,” said safety Khoury Bethley, who will be playing just 35 or so miles from his native Chino. “They have him (Jordan Addison), but they also have a lot of other guys who can get the ball who are just as capable as him.  They have so many athletes that you can’t just key in one guy.”

“It’s gonna be a challenge. We’re going to have to do some things to slow them down a little bit,” Henderson said. “We can’t just let them run up and down the field because if they start to use their speed, it could be a long day.”

Interim coach Shaun Aguano alluded to one key being able to keep his offense on the field, which would keep the potent Trojans off it. That might mean gambling on fourth down.  

“Coach (Aguano) has talked about the fact that he’s going to be aggressive. That for us as a defense makes us think we have to be aggressive along with him,” Henderson said. “I told the defense to get ready for it. There’s going to be some third or fourth downs that the offense goes for, and we’re going to have to come put out the fire.”

Read more: ASU football fans call for upset vs. USC in uniform post

Gentry on the other side

Southern California linebacker Eric Gentry (18) tackles Stanford running back Casey Filkins (2) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

One of the key additions for USC came courtesy of  ASU as linebacker Eric Gentry transferred over the summer. He had earned Freshman All-American honors and was set to start in the spot vacated by Darien Butler. The Philadelphia native leads the Trojans in tackles and while he may be gone, he is up to date on the latest out of Tempe.

“They’re tough. We went through a lot last year as ASU players. I mean, they’re good for it. They’re amazing football players," Gentry said in addressing the USC media earlier this week. "It’s going to be a good game. There’s no beef from me. I still talk to them. We’ve just got the game this week, and it’s going to be a good matchup.”

Reach the reporter at or 602 444-4783.  Follow her on Twitter @MGardnerSports.

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