TEMPE — Even in the new era of pass-happy, spread offenses across the college football landscape, the game will always be won and lost in the trenches.
With the likes of UNLV Rebels running back Charles Williams coming to Tempe on Saturday to face the No. 25 Arizona State Sun Devils, maintaining run gap integrity is priority No. 1 for ASU head coach Herm Edwards.
In a 35-33 overtime loss to Eastern Washington last week, Williams racked up 172 rushing yards on 27 carries (6.4 per rush) and scored two touchdowns.
To put those rushing numbers into perspective, UNLV only had a total of 140 yards between two quarterbacks on 12-of-23 passing for no scores and one interception.
“Defensively, we have a task ahead of us with this run game they have because they do a nice job of running the ball,” Edwards said at his weekly press conference Monday. “So we have to get that stopped. … You still have to have your gap integrity. You have to trust that if I’m supposed to be in the A, B or C gap, I have to trust that I have to stay in this gap.
“Sometimes defensively you want to make a play and you see stuff flash and you go that way and then they come back and all of a sudden there’s an open gap. So we have to do a better job of keeping our gap responsibility and then tackling. We have to tackle this back. He’s a good football player now, Williams.”
When it comes to stopping the pass, Edwards said the Sun Devils have done “a pretty good job in pass coverage” and that there are “not a lot of leaks in the defense.”
The head coach reiterated the importance of maintaining gap control with a mobile quarterback and stated how forcing turnovers in order to give the offense more possessions and a shorter field can stem from getting pressure on an opposing QB and to not get too caught up in the stats as it pertains to sacks.
“It’s kind of like a marriage coverage and rushing,” Edwards said. “We have to do a better job of getting to the quarterback. We got him off his spot now. Sometimes you look at games and you look at sacks. I don’t get involved in that. I get involved in is a guy standing in his spot. If you watch it, the first interception was caused because of a good rush, the guy threw it off his back foot.”
“You’ll have a bunch of guys playing Lone Wolf McQuades and just want to get their stats and then bad things happen because you have to have integrity in the rush lanes, especially this week with the quarterback we’re playing because he’ll leave the pocket and run,” he added. “And so all those things are important but for the most part you always want to improve on your pass rush, there’s no doubt about that.”
Offensively, Edwards still maintains his commitment to running the football despite not wanting to call Arizona State a running team. And that largely has to do with the fact that over the last three years, ASU is 9-1 when running for over 200 yards in a game.
“When we run the ball fairly decent, we got a chance. … I’m not saying we’re a running team, but we’re 9-1,” he said. “That’s what I do know, so that’s a pretty good stat to have in your back pocket.”
However, the head coach would like to clean up some of the unforced mistakes that the Sun Devils made in the 41-14 win over Southern Utah. ASU combined for 13 penalties — 11 in the first half alone — for a total of 135 yards, the most the team has given up with Edwards at the helm.
While those penalties extended drives on defense, they put Arizona State in nine long situations on offense. Edwards said he counted three times ASU had 1st-and-15 or longer, three times it was 2nd-and-14 or longer and three times it was 3rd-and-16 or longer.
“Those are bad downs. You can’t be in those kinds of downs,” he explained. “To keep the ball going, to keep the drive going, those are hard to get out of. And so we have to get away from that.
“There will be some negative plays every once in a while, but football to me on offense is as real important as this: make first downs. And if you make first downs, you get more plays and the field starts shrinking in the right way. And we have to do a better job of that for sure.”
“There’s this fine line between being passionate and emotional and you can’t get emotional because you make errors,” he added.
“We got some knicks from the first game but I think most of our guys are ready to roll,” Edwards said. “We’ll see where that’s at.
“After the first game, you’re always concerned about guys. It’s the first real tackle football game against an opponent so it’s a little different, but for the most part we came out of it pretty good.”