Defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales of the Arizona State Sun Devils looks on during the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on September 14, 2019 in East Lansing, Michigan. Arizona State defeated Michigan State 10-7. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona State Sun Devils had one constant throughout the first three games of the season.
While the offense looked to find its bearings early on, the defense remained a sturdy rock to fall back on.
That all changed against Colorado, however, as the unit looked tentative in the loss, not boasting that confidence it had gained through three weeks.
After giving up just 21 points over a three-game span, the Buffaloes came into Sun Devil Stadium and dropped 34 points on ASU.
But the Sun Devils weren’t necessarily over-matched talent-wise. The missteps on defense came from within.
“I don’t think we were as aggressive,” defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Danny Gonzales said when asked about the unit Monday. “When that is the case … you have to look at yourself, you have to look at the coaching side of it. Did we do too much? Were we so detailed that we turned the kids into robots?
“… The worst thing you can be on the football field and I think this is worse than any four-letter word. You call somebody soft? They’re taking your man card, they are raiding your house. I mean they are destroying everything. That to me, I thought we were soft on Saturday. And when you have a football team that is soft, you have to look at yourself in the mirror because you ain’t doing something right to prepare them right.”
Losing in their first Pac-12 action of the season is not ideal.
And following Saturday’s showing, having a short week with undefeated California next on the docket doesn’t make things any easier.
“I won’t make excuses. You can’t have an off night,” Gonzales said. “When I sit up here and preach about all the stuff we want to do and everything’s great and you give up seven points and we talk about being dominant, then you can’t have an off night. That’s coaching, that’s the coaches’ fault. So fix it.”
With that in mind, the loss to Colorado wasn’t the end of the night for Gonzales, or the rest of the coaching staff, at the final whistle. After the game, Gonzales went right back to work, looking to find a remedy for issues he observed on the field.
“I stayed up all Saturday night, stayed here,” Gonzales said. “We lost a day of preparation so left here — I couldn’t even tell you what time I left here [Sunday night], got back here [Monday] morning at 5 a.m. and solved the problem.
“Did we solve it? We’ll find out Friday night. But I’ll tell you what, they will be amped up. They will be ready to run into a brick wall and we’ll see. We’ll see who the most violent team is on Friday night. The team that plays the hardest and longest is gonna win. We didn’t do that Saturday.”
A variable in Gonzales’ equation is the health of redshirt freshman safety Cameron Phillips. The safety suffered a dislocated elbow against the Buffaloes, leaving his status up in the air for Cal.
“I would be shocked if he could play,” Gonzales said when talking about Phillips’ game-time decision. “Just because that’s a pretty traumatic deal. … He’s played at a really high level. He’s probably been play-for-play our most productive player as far as tackles, pass breakups, being in coverage, doing the right things. So it’ll definitely hurt not having him out there on Saturday.”
This season, Phillips has recorded a team-high 32 total tackles to go along with four passes defensed, tied for the team high, an interception and a forced fumble.
In his place would be freshman DB Willie Harts, who Gonzales believes has the same ability, but hasn’t seen as many snaps as Phillips.
“Willie is very talented and smart, so he’ll be in a lot of the same places,” Gonzales said. “Now when the lights are on, is he going to make the plays? We’ll find out.”
Luckily for Gonzales and the Sun Devils, the team has a veteran presence in sophomores Aashari Crosswell, Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler to help pick up the slack and keep teammates honest.
Their success may not be evident on the statsheet as much as it was last year, but all three have taken another jump in their progression, helping maintain the defense’s identity. All told, they’ve combined for 64 tackles, four pass breakups and three forced fumbles. Butler also has a sack.
“When you get your tail whooped like that, you want to get back out there as fast as you can so you can redeem yourself, and [Monday’s] practice, the energy was good from those guys,” Gonzales said. “… The energy I think shows you have a chance to be successful, because I think their pride was really smashed on Saturday night.
“There’s two ways you come back. You come back feeling sorry for yourself and wait for somebody to tell you that everything’s going to be okay. Well guess what? It ain’t unless you fix it. And they came back with the right attitude and the right attitude will give you a chance. And if we play aggressive and fast on Saturday then we’ll have a chance. If we don’t, well we’ll see.”