Tech defense will need to make its case against Arizona State

Last year’s game against Arizona State might have been the ugliest of Kliff Kingsbury’s coaching career.

His offense scored 55 points. And lost. The Sun Devils scored 68.

The Tech defense was befuddled by a specific formation, which was dubbed “Sparky,” and the unit’s struggles served as a microcosm of an entire season of defensive futility.

Arizona State tailback Kalen Ballage scored seven touchdowns from the formation, all on direct snaps. Ballage also had a 39-yard score via a double-reverse flea flicker to give him eight touchdowns for the game, tying an NCAA record originally set by Illinois’ Howard Griffin in 1990.

“I mean, yeah, they put a lot of points on us last year,” said Tech safety Jah’Shawn Johnson. “And we know we have to improve in order to win this game and just give our offense a chance at the end.”

The Tech defense also had a similar meltdown against Oklahoma later in the season, with the Sooners winning 66-59. There were losses to Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Texas, too, in which the offense scored at least 37 points and still couldn’t win.

Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt ordered Kingsbury, known as an offensive innovator, to pay closer attention to the Tech defense. Kingsbury’s job probably hinges on how well his defense performs this year. And on Saturday night, Tech will see how much progress the defense has made when the Red Raiders face the visiting Sun Devils at Jones Stadium.

Ballage is back. So is multi-threat quarterback Manny Wilkins.

It’s the Tech defense that will look wildly different.

Of the 11 defensive starters who played against Arizona State last year, only four are even on this year’s roster. Tech used 34 defensive players in its season-opening 56-10 rout of Eastern Washington. Only 15 of them played against ASU last September.

Kingsbury brought in experienced players to help salvage the defense. He signed six such players for the secondary — four from junior colleges and two transfers from FBS schools. Plus, linebacker Dakota Allen, who was second in tackles for Tech in 2015, is eligible again after spending last season at East Mississippi Community College. He had 117 tackles last year, which was eighth-best nationally among junior college players.

The new guys know what happened with Ballage, but their familiarity comes from watching film, not by trying to tackle him.

“I think obviously any time somebody scores eight touchdowns on you, you’re going to know about it,” Kingsbury said. “But I think they understand this is a new defense, two teams in a new year, so last year doesn’t mean anything really.”

Tech, after winning its opener, had a bye this past Saturday. The defense had a decent outing in the opening game. Eastern Washington’s 10 points all were scored in the second quarter. It was the fewest points the Red Raiders had allowed in an opener since 2013, when Tech beat Texas State, 33-7.

Eastern Washington’s 62 total yards in the second half were the fewest in a half in the Kingsbury era.

No doubt, the Raiders have studied ASU’s Sparky formation. It’s a power look, used in short yardage or on the goal line, with a twist. The tailback takes the direct snap. The left guard usually pulls to the right to give extra heft. There are three players in the backfield — two tailbacks and an H-back.

Six of Ballage’s touchdowns off the formation came on runs to the right side. The other score was off a counter to the left.

“I think we’ve taken a long, hard look at that,” Kingsbury said of the formation. “I think after last year, the problems that gave us, we’ve definitely had some focus on that and hopefully we can do a better job of slowing that down this season.”

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