After his Washington State defensive linemen started suffering injuries at an alarming rate earlier this season, Robb Akey turned his front four into a front three as a matter of necessity. He has found it to be good for a little trickery.
The Cougars, though not often lately, alternate their defensive formation between the 3-4 and the 4-3 to give the offense different looks.
“We went into the season wanting to have a blend between the two, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t enhanced by our need for personnel,” said Akey, the Cougars’ defensive coordinator. “The good thing is that we’ve been able to build it during the season and blend them well.”
Washington State is typically a 4-3 team, but Akey is still thin at defensive tackle. As a result, ASU coach Dirk Koetter expects to see the 3-4 — which the Cougars have used primarily the last two weeks — for most of tonight’s game at Sun Devil Stadium.
Koetter said that the main challenges of preparing for multiple defensive formations are along the offensive line, which must prepare two different blocking schemes.
“In their mind, I’m sure they’d like to mix both, which is what they did against California and Oregon State earlier this year,” Koetter said. “They were in the 4-3 only three or four plays last week.”
Against Oregon, Washington State lost defensive tackles Aaron Johnson (elbow) and Ropati Pitoitua (knee), forcing it to rely on the 3-4. The two are expected to play tonight, so the Cougars could use the 4-3 more than they have in recent games.
Other walking wounded on the defensive line include ends Matt Mullenix (knee surgery) and Mike Graise (hamstring) and tackle Fevaea’i Ahmu (foot). The star of the unit, senior end Mkristo Bruce, has been limited by a bruised right knee.
Despite the injuries, the Cougars have been able to get consistent pressure on quarterbacks. Their 30 sacks is tied for 13th in the nation.
“In the 3-4, the pressure can come from end or inside,” Akey said. “We try to mix it up and get guys in one-on-one situations.”
Bruce, one of the nation’s best rush ends, has 10 sacks on the season, but none in the last four games.
“I’ve probably never hurt this bad in my whole life,” Bruce told reporters after a 37-15 victory at UCLA on Oct. 28. “This is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Coach Akey wants me to be out there, but I told him, ‘If I’m not helping the team, get a young guy in there.’ ”
Akey would not think of replacing Bruce — no matter the formation.
“He’s such a powerful tool for our defense,” Akey said.
The Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review contributed to this report.