Discipline key for ASU football against New Mexico’s speedy option offense

Senior outside linebacker (left) Chris Young makes a tackle while redshirt junior defensive back (right) Damarious Randall assists. ASU defeated the Washington Huskies in an October 2013 home game. (Photo by Dominic Valente)

Senior outside linebacker (left) Chris Young makes a tackle while redshirt junior defensive back (right) Damarious Randall assists. ASU defeated the Washington Huskies this weekend and have thus far remained undefeated at home. (Photo by Dominic Valente)

Coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell pride themselves on being fast, being explosive on offense. On Saturday in Albuquerque, ASU won’t be the only team with speed on the field.

The New Mexico Lobos will challenge the Sun Devils to be the fastest on the gridiron. They’ve got speed and athleticism at not just the skill positions but also quarterback, where junior Cole Gautsche leads the Lobos’ triple-option attack.

Because of the Lobos’ atypical offensive scheme, it hasn’t been a normal week of practice for the Sun Devils leading up to Saturday. A team that likes to play man-to-man is playing zone. A team that likes to blitz the quarterback is being patient and disciplined.

Graham is preparing his team the best he can for what New Mexico brings to the table offensively. He can’t even refer to the last triple-option-oriented team ASU faced, Navy, which it beat in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in 2012, because of how different New Mexico’s scheme is.

“(New Mexico) is a triple-option team, but they’re different, because it’s all out of the gun,” Graham said.

The key to beating an option-based team is discipline, and that’s what Graham has been preaching all week. This will be the biggest test presented to ASU’s youthful defense yet. Graham has been getting on his guys all week about alignment, assignments and knowing what to do if the Lobos keep, pitch, dive or throw off the option.

A New Mexico team that went 3-9 last season in the Mountain West Conference and lost 31-24 to UTEP last week shouldn’t pose a real threat to the Sun Devils, and it likely won’t. The triple-option does open the door for trouble, though.

“It’s the great equalizer of athleticism,” Graham said. “It’ll be a strong, strong test for us.”

As long as ASU stays disciplined on defense, the Lobos shouldn’t present a problem. The triple-option relies on teams being unprepared for an offense that’s not seen as much. And if there’s one thing Graham’s teams are not, it’s unprepared.

New Mexico has rarely, if ever, caught big-time programs off guard. It hasn’t beaten a top-25 team in more than a decade, and more often than not, the score is closer to the 72-0 beating Oregon gave the Lobos in 2010 than their 47-35 upset of No. 24 Utah in 2003.

Nevertheless, Graham has been quick to point out New Mexico’s skill positions and how fast they are. But the Sun Devils like to find a weakness in an opponent and attack it.

“They’ve got some skill players,” Graham said. “That’s their strength. Where we’ve got an advantage is in the lines: our offensive line and defensive line.”

With a week of preparation for the triple-option under their belts, including an extra practice because of playing on Thursday last week, Graham is confident there won’t be anything to worry about.

“We’ve just got to play Sun Devil football, disciplined football,” Graham said. “We’ve had adequate time to get ready, so that won’t be an excuse we can ever use.”

Three thing to watch for

1. Marcus Ball at Spur

Earlier this week, the coaching staff decided to give redshirt freshman Marcus Ball a look at Spur, the safety-linebacker hybrid position played by Anthony Jones and Chris Young the past two seasons. It’s unknown if the move is permanent, but both Ball and the coaching staff likes the extra athleticism on the field against New Mexico’s triple-option attack. If Ball thrives, it could be a place he can stick, as he has the prototypical Spur body type and mentality. He’s had less than a week of practice there, though, and Graham said he is already behind the others, so it remains to be seen how much he’ll play at Spur on Saturday.

2. Disciplined young defense?

One thing Todd Graham has preached in his time at ASU and his entire coaching career is discipline. Graham’s teams are consistently some of the least-penalized in the nation. But will the attitude toward taking penalties cross over to also begin disciplined in their assignments on defense? It will be key for the defense, with nine new starters this season, to have picked up on the coaching this week.

3. How ASU handles the road

Albuquerque isn’t a far trip. New Mexico isn’t a powerhouse opponent. Its stadium, University Stadium, isn’t an intimidating force — it likely won’t even be full. But this is the first road game for one of the youngest teams in the country. While the crowd might not present much of a challenge, the Sun Devils also won’t have the advantage their home crowd provides them. While it shouldn’t factor into the outcome of the game, if ASU comes out of the gate slowly, it could present a new issue for the team going forward.

TV/radio information

Kickoff: 4 p.m. Arizona time

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: 92.3 FM KTAR

Score prediction: ASU 52, New Mexico 17

 

Reach the reporter at ewebeck@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @EvanWebeck