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September 22, 2011Gregg Smith could have easily spent much of Saturday wondering if Arizona State's arrival in Champaign, Ill., triggered some kind of time warp.
In a 17-14 loss to the Fightin' Illini' it seemed as though Smith's veteran offensive line was transported to 2007, when coach Dennis Erickson's first season in Tempe saw the Sun Devils finish 117th out of 119 teams nationally in sacks allowed.
After giving up just one sack through its first two games of the season, altitudinous ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler was felled six times by Illinois Saturday, leaving Smith scratching his head and perhaps wiping a little spittle from his jowls.
Smith, if you didn't know, is a bit prone to yelling when he feels it's deserved.
With five returning starters, Smith hasn't spent much time raising his voice this year, but admits he had a bit of a relapse over the weekend when he felt his players needed to understand his displeasure.
"Didn't play near good enough," Smith said simply. "Gotta play better."
Oddly enough, Smith said the group handled Illinois' exotic defensive approach with three down linemen quite well, but somehow managed to have fits with its 40 front, which is what the Sun Devils see from their own defense every day in practice, not to mention most of the other teams in the Pac-12.
"We were running at [the 30 front] and it was pretty good," Smith said. "And for the most part when we protected it, it was pretty good. Where we broke down as far as the protection part of it was really with their four down stuff. Which really makes no sense to me but that is what happen."
There was no running theme to the flummoxing assignment errors, other than perhaps unfamiliarity. Smith said Illinois "dreamt up" a previously unseen approach to pressuring Osweiler, and the variety may have led to some of the confusion.
"They are a good group they are going to work hard," Smith said. "They understand the mistakes they made. It was an assignment deal It wasn't anything physical about it, it was just an assignment deal. When you start doing a bunch of stuff at a three down and 'backers are running here and running back over that way, it is tough. Especially when you haven't practiced it all week. "
Like Erickson and Osweiler before him, Smith was quick to point out the team's protection unit involves more than just the offensive line -- a breakdown at running back led to one of the sacks where Osweiler turned the ball over -- and Osweiler held the ball a bit long on some plays.
But it was deep in Illinois territory where the line's mistakes were costly, a place where several of its five penalties took place, including an illegal hands to the face penalty that pushed ASU back from the Illinois 30 yard line on first down.
"They had a good plan (on defense)," he said. "We just made some critical errors down in the red zone where it really hurt. If we hadn't made those errors we wouldn't even be talking about this stuff right now. "
The primary challenge presented by USC this week is the much-better-than-average size to athleticism ratio of its defensive front seven, and the Trojans desire to sit back in zone coverage, only rushing four if they can successfully pressure opposing quarterbacks without bringing blitzers.
"Gotta block their front four," Smith said. "Their front four are good players. Got a good middle linebacker that is an experienced guy. These guys are big and strong, and run around pretty good, and are coached extremely well."
Even after a bit of a setback on the road, Smith said he likes the odds of his group rebounding with a strong performance.
"Well we have had a good week," he said. "One thing about players is they are pretty resilient. They bounce back a hell of a lot faster than we (coaches) do. With us it stays with us a little longer. With those players as soon as we came in Sunday, they knew the mistakes they corrected them. We came out Tuesday and practiced good, and [Wednesday] we had a good day. They are going be ready to go out and play. They are [ticked off] and that is good."