In a change, 6th-ranked Sun Devils winning with defense

TEMPE, Ariz. &

Dennis Erickson wasn't sure what to expect from his defense when he took over at Arizona State last winter.

The numbers were discouraging. The Sun Devils had given up 49 points to Cal, 48 to Oregon, 44 to Oregon State and 41 to Hawaii.

But as Erickson reviewed game film, he noticed that many of his defenders could run. And so it became a matter of putting them in the right places and giving them a simple game plan.

A unit that had tire tracks all over it a year ago is limiting opponents to 15.63 points per game, best in the Pac-10 and seventh in the nation.

Defense is the reason the sixth-ranked Sun Devils (8-0, 5-0 Pac-10) are unbeaten as they prepare for this week's showdown against No. 4 Oregon in Autzen Stadium.

"I think defensively you've got to look at what are your pluses and what are your minuses and take advantage of that," Erickson said Monday at his weekly campus news conference.

"They're not thinking a lot," Erickson said. "They're just playing. We're taking advantage of some of the things that we have."

It's a critical change for a program known more for its star quarterbacks than cornerbacks in recent years. But throughout ASU's checkered football history, its best teams typically have been stout on defense. The Sun Devils had the Pac-10's top scoring defense in 1986 and 1996, their only Rose Bowl seasons.

Since 2000, Arizona State has had only five first-team All-Pac-10 defensive players, and that's counting former defensive end Terrell Suggs twice.

This year's defense has few stars, although cornerback Justin Tryon and linebacker Robert James have been earning attention. The unit thrives on the relatively simple schemes drawn up by defensive coordinator Craig Bray, who coached on Erickson's staffs at Oregon State and Washington State.

"I know that what we teach defensively is very solid football," said Erickson, who spends most of his time with the offense. "We're playing great team defense. It's simple and we're running to the football. We have confidence in what we're doing."

Quarterback Rudy Carpenter, for one, is a little surprised at the defense's improvement because he remembers moving the ball easily on the unit in spring drills.

"I wasn't really sure how good our defense was going to be, but they're definitely the strongest part of our team right now," he said.

The defense faces its sternest test Saturday, when Arizona State takes on Oregon in Eugene. The Ducks average 43.75 points per game, third in the nation.

They're led by quarterback Dennis Dixon, the nation's sixth-ranked passer, and hard-charging tailback Jonathan Stewart, who averages 130.38 yards per game, seventh in the nation.

"If we can slow Stewart down, that would help," Erickson said. "No one has, but idealistically..."

ASU hopes to disrupt the Ducks by creating turnovers. The Sun Devils have a plus-.88 turnover margin, best in the conference.

"As you go through football, irregardless of where it's at, whether it's in high school or in college or in the National Football League, that's probably one statistic that jumps out as far as who wins and who loses more than anything is the turnover margin," Erickson said.

ASU's turnovers have helped the Sun Devils overcome some wobbly starts.

In a 33-14 victory over Colorado on Sept. 8, safety Troy Nolan returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter; from that point on, the Sun Devils outscored the Buffaloes 20-0.

In a 44-32 win over Oregon State on Sept. 22, the Sun Devils trailed 26-20 late in the third quarter when Nolan intercepted a pass to give ASU the ball near midfield; on the next snap, Carpenter threw a touchdown pass to put ASU ahead to stay.

Last weekend, the Sun Devils were clinging to a 24-20 lead over California when Tryon and linebacker Robert James intercepted passes on consecutive possessions early in the fourth quarter. The second turnover led to the game-clinching touchdown.

"We've been a team that's been pretty opportunistic as far as turnovers are concerned," Erickson said.

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