West Coast Offense: Arizona State’s Stunning Turnaround

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Arizona State football seasons followed a particular trend over the years. The Sun Devils often start about as hot as hot as Tempe’s September mercury, then cool off once October arrives.

Last season, for example, Arizona state went undefeated in September, lost Oct. 1 at USC, but rebounded the next week with a win over UCLA. At 5-1, Todd Graham’s bunch sat just outside the Top 25.

It did not win again for the remainder of the campaign.

2015 followed a similar trajectory, with a 4-2 start preceding a 2-5 finish. The 2011 season, Dennis Erickson’s last as head coach, is perhaps the prime example. A win over USC — which visits Sun Devil Stadium Saturday night with first place in the Pac-12 South at stake — propelled Arizona State into the Top 25

The 2017 campaign flipped the script. After losing to Stanford on Sept. 30, a game in which the Sun Devil defense surrendered 303 rushing yards to Heisman Trophy contender Bryce Love, Arizona State fell to 2-3. The wins included a too-close-for-comfort victory Week 1 over New Mexico State and an exciting Pac-12-opening defeat of a middling Oregon bunch.

In both contests, the Sun Devils gave up more than 30 points, with the Stanford game marking a dubious streak of 11 such games with ASU opponents hitting at least 30.

Then, over the last two weeks, the Sun Devil defense held Utah and Washington to a combined 17 points in a pair of marquee wins. Huh?

The suddenly impenetrable Arizona State defense seen the last two weeks came off a bye week, but first-year coordinator Phil Bennett made no dramatic schematic changes.

“They stayed pretty much true to form,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “Something clicked for them in that Washington game the week before. They played outstanding team defense, and it carried over into our game, unfortunately for us…It was almost a carbon-copy as far as yards allowed and points, the whole deal.”

Following the Utah and Washington wins, Arizona State sits in a three-way tie in the loss column of the Pac-12 South with USC and Arizona. Arizona’s season has turned around in a manner similar to its rival, rebounding from a 2-2 start to win its last three.

The Wildcats’ turnaround has a much more clear, tangible explanation, however, with quarterback Khalil Tate’s insertion into the starting lineup providing the catalyst.

“We felt like we were good up front, and we felt we were good at linebacker,” Graham said. “We had some personnel issues in the secondary [last season], and I think that’s one of the things we addressed in the offseason. We have a lot better personnel on the back-end, and coach Bennett’s done just a marvelous job at developing our guys, especially in the secondary.”

Arizona State opened the season with veterans in the front seven — players like JoJo Wicker, who was gracious enough to answer some questions in an interview you can listen to with a Patreon subscription;  as well as D.J. Calhoun and Christian Sam — but the secondary was youthful.

The development of a young corps speaks directly to Stanford head coach David Shaw’s point about midseason turnarounds. His Cardinal are on one currently, rattling off four straight wins since falling to 1-2 at the beginning of the campaign.

“So many people forget that in college sports, we actually have college-aged people,” Shaw said. “They’re not perfect; they grow and they learn. They can’t be at their best 24/7, all the time, especially when you have an influx of new players.”

In a mirror-opposite way similar to Arizona State’s recent collapses, Stanford’s typically improved over the course of the season. In 2012, the Cardinal rebounded from first-half losses to Washington and Notre Dame and went on to win the Rose Bowl. The 2015 squad did the same after a shocking, Week 1 defeat at Northwestern.

This season’s team dropped back-to-back games at USC and San Diego State, but will likely head into November positioned no worse than in a tie for first place atop the North.

This isn’t unfettered ground for Shaw. And while Arizona State’s often followed the opposite trajectory, Graham has been in similar situations, too.

He cited the one-year turnaround West Virginia made in 2002 when he was there as a defensive coordinator. In his first head-coaching gig at Rice, in 2006, the Owls lost their first four and were 1-5 at the midway point.

They rallied to “make a bowl for the first time since Truman was president,” as Graham noted.

So, while it hadn’t happened at Arizona State, Graham experienced remarkable, midseason turnarounds previously in his coaching career. He said remaining steadfast in the basic approach was critical, particularly with a team featuring as much youth as the Sun Devils.

“You can’t just sway with the wind: You’ve got to know and have a vision and plan to stick it,” he said. “If you stick to that plan, you’ll start to improve.

“If you’ve got guys who have character — that means they serve each other every day with their best attitude, best effort — and you’ve got guys who put the team first and you’ve got some talent, you just keep your head down and keep working, it will come together,” Graham added.

Arizona’s Run-Game Depth

So spotlighting Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate has become a weekly staple of West Coast Offense, just as Tate is unofficially renaming the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week the Khalil Tate Award.

He won his third consecutive such honor after passing for 166 yards and two touchdowns with a team-high 137 yards and a third score in the Wildcats’ 45-44 win at Cal.

Though he’s passed well in limited instances, it’s the rushing plays that garner so much attention for Tate.

Exciting as they may be, Tate does not have the ability to juke defenses so effectively without the very real threat Arizona’s running-back corps presents. The win over Cal provided perhaps the best possible example, with leading rusher Nick Wilson injured early in the game, and change-of-pace back J.J. Taylor ejected on a targeting call later in the first half.

Next man up: Zach Green.

Green operated almost exclusively as a short-yardage and goal-line back in Arizona’s first six games, but erupted for 130 yards and two touchdowns when given the opportunity to work as Arizona’s feature-back at Cal.

“They all three can do all the things we want, but they’re all three a little bit different too,” Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said last week, before Green’s breakout performance. “It gives us some neat options.”

How prescient that proved to be. With Green registering a big day, Arizona now has a rotation of ball-carriers with 780 yards on 56 carries (13.9) and seven touchdowns in Khalil Tate; 366 yards on 78 carries (4.7 YPC) and two touchdowns in J.J. Taylor; 353 yards on 69 carries (5.1 YPC) and three touchdowns with Nick Wilson; and 266 yards on 47 carries (5.7 YPC) in Zach Green.

There’s a similarity to be drawn with Rodriguez’s 2007 West Virginia team, which had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Pat White and Steve Slaton; Noel Devine carving out almost 9 YPC as the change-of-pace back; and Owen Schmitt as a bruiser option.

Pay Respect to The Dogfather

Legendary Washington Huskies head coach Don James will be physically immortalized outside Husky Stadium this weekend, with the unveiling of a statue baring his likeness.

The late James, who passed away in October 2013, built Washington into a national powerhouse that endured from the late 1970s, reaching the Rose Bowl in ’77, to the 1990s, when the Huskies played in three consecutive Rose Bowls.

Sustained success at that level over such a lengthy time frame predictably established an impressive coaching tree that includes Nick Saban, as well as Washington’s opponent Saturday, Jim Mora of UCLA. I wrote more in-depth on Mora’s Homecoming and history with The Dogfather here.

James’ memorial is a longtime coming. He was a contemporary of some of the Pac-12’s all-time greats, going head-to-head with Bill Walsh at Stanford and John Robinson at USC. Washington and USC battled for West Coast supremacy in the late 1970s with James and Robinson on the sidelines.

But whereas Walsh and Robinson pursued NFL glory in the 1980s, James remained committed to Washington. The culmination was a national championship in 1991, the benchmark the Huskies still chase today.