One month ago, ASU football found itself down by just four at halftime to the offensive juggernaut No. 9 USC Trojans.
Then, the Trojans went three for three in the red zone to cash out three second-half touchdowns.
Following the 42-25 defeat and the club’s fourth straight loss, the interim head coach Shaun Aguano said the defense will have to step up.
“On the defensive side, we didn’t get off the field on third downs,” he said. “And that’s been a nemesis and we need to make sure that we take care of that.”
Since then, defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson and his squad have been significant with situational stops in ASU’s midseason resurrection that has seen the club go 2-1 in the last three games including an upset win over then-ranked No. 21 Washington, a one-point loss at Stanford and a road victory at Colorado.
The defense first showed signs of life against Washington after redshirt junior defensive back Jordan Clark returned an interception for six points in the second half.
At the end of the fourth in a one-score ball game with ASU up 45-38, Henderson was tasked to stop the Pac-12’s most explosive passing offense from scoring a touchdown. At that point, the Huskies had already scored three touchdowns in the second half.
But the Sun Devils came up with stops when it mattered the most and dialed up a third down and two fourth-down stops to hold Washington scoreless the rest of the game.
"I feel like we've been saying it for the past few weeks, we feel like we can play with anyone," redshirt fifth-year linebacker Kyle Soelle said. "We just had to put a full four quarters in a game and finally got it done today."
The next week when the Devils traveled to Stanford they held potential NFL first-round draft pick junior quarterback Tanner McKee out of the end zone and forced the Cardinal offense to settle for five field goals in a 15-14 loss.
ASU's linebacking core of Soelle and fifth-year Merlin Robertson shined, coming up with 14 and 13 tackles, respectively. Soelle leads the Pac-12 in tackles per game with 11.4 while Robertson comes in sixth with 7.9.
Once again late in the game, Henderson's defense forced the Cardinal offense to punt with 1:28 left in the game down one to put ASU in position to take the game. The team came up inches short of a potential chip shot field goal to win the game after a redshirt sophomore wide receiver Elijhah Badger catch was overturned at the one-yard line with 0:03 left after referees determined he stepped out of bounds.
In last week's 42-34 victory at Colorado in redshirt junior Trenton Bourguet's first career start, the newly vamped offensive explosion masked a rough day at the office for ASU's defensive line that allowed 137 rushing yards but the secondary held sophomore quarterback J.T. Shrout to a 38.2 completion percentage.
Heading into the match, the Buffalos averaged a Pac-12 low 13.7 points per game but found the end zone four times against ASU. However, with ASU up 42-20 in the fourth, a Buffalo touchdown and punt return touchdown tacked on a late 14 points for Colorado when the game was already out of reach.
“Well, it’s pretty simple: When we do our job we’ve got a pretty good shot of winning, and we eliminate giving up the explosive plays,” Henderson said. “If we don't do our job, everybody doesn’t do what they’re supposed to do every snap, bad things happen.”
As the Sun Devils prepare for a home matchup versus No. 12 UCLA on Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m., Henderson will be tasked to contain senior running back Zach Charbonnet who has 964 yards on 7.5 yards per carry and redshirt senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson that leads a Bruins offense that produces 500.6 yards per game.
Edited by Kathryn Field, Wyatt Myskow and Grace Copperthite.