Coulda, woulda, shoulda?...
Saturday's loss for the Sun Devils to arch rival Arizona was a summary of how the last couple weeks have gone. Only this time it was with an exclamation point! With so much riding on this game, so many feelings of uncertainty surrounding all angles of the Sun Devil program, a win Saturday was basically a must have. Not only was this game against the UofA it was really the last chance for Coach Erickson and staff to win back the hearts of so many Sun Devil followers.
So what went wrong?
Are the Devils just too predictable on Offense? Is the play book too simplified? Do we not blitz enough on Defense, often times lining up in the same formation and base Defense time and time again? Why do we create penalties at the most crucial times of the game? Why can't the Sun Devil Defense tackle? These are the questions that keep coming up over and over again that the fan base is now demanding answers for.
I would love to say I knew all the answers here and could help aid in the fixing of the questions at hand. Here is my gut feeling and the one basic thing that is wrong with ASU Football right now.
EXECUTION! -The act of executing something- the style or manner in which something is accomplished or performed; technique.
It seems that series after series the Devils are unable to put together what you would call "great" or elite execution. Breakdowns on so many plays have haunted this team all season long. Execution and the act of comes in all forms. It is discipline on 3rd and 6 and not being able to jump offsides. It is being able to hold a "legal" block on the edge when the swing pass is thrown. It's knowing the snap count when you are in the red-zone and getting off the ball to make your block as an O-Lineman.
On Defense it is being able to wrap up and tackle consistently and always know your assignment each down. All of these things or lack of prevented the Sun Devils from winning the game on Saturday night. The lack of solid execution throughout the game was the major difference and has been through this last stretch of the season.
The question still lies though because the future actually still holds potential promising rewards...(CCG, Rose Bowl?)... is it too late to fix some of these problems or has the ship sailed that I talked about earlier in the season.
The Duel in the Desert setting...
Coach Erickson coming into the game knew this was the chance to settle the jury in his favor. He was 2-2 against the Wildcats prior to Saturday and a win could have potentially saved grace with many. Personally, I saw it as a chance for Coach Erickson and staff to really show the product they have tried to create over their tenure here at ASU. These are all their kids, play books and this was the perfect setting to show it all to the world. Emotions were going to be high and we all know this matchup between rivals is one that is settled each year by tight spreads.
The UofA was a 2-8 team and had really shown themselves true the week prior losing to a bottom Pac team in Colorado. The Sun Devils would once again be the favorite team just as they had been the prior couple of weeks. And we all know after a major back and fourth game last year it was obvious this one was going to be much of the same. As a fan, I was so ready to watch the Sun Devils stomp the Wildcats in SDS and prove that we are a team that can get it done and that sometimes our heads just beat ourselves and not that the other team is actually better.
That the matchup between the Buttes was one that we would remember for a long long time... in the end... all I want to do is now forget and move on to new directions. All of these now are things that are known so let's talk some film and grade some position groups!
Talking about the Offense:
Statistically it was a great night as the Sun Devils tallied over 548 yards of total yards and 27 points. They were 1-2 on fourth down and 9-17 on third. The highlight stat of the night would be Brock Osweiler's 487 yards passing however it came on a 36/65 attempts. The thing to note and as the game went on was once again the lack of production in the running department. With Cameron Marshall banged up from the last couple weeks of tough running it was going to be a tough task yet one that the Devils had to achieve in order to have success against the Wildcats.
The UofA Defense was10th in the Conference in rushing allowed, averaging 180 yards a game against their defense coming into the game. The Devils only managed to gain 61 yards on 23 attempts (2.7 yard avg against the 10th ranked Defense in the Conference!). That will not get it done in a game like this were holding on to the ball and keeping the Defense honest is a key to the game plan. In my notes and the thing I picked up on was that nearly 85% of the Sun Devil first down plays were passes (22/34 first down plays with two of those being spikes late in the fourth). So as a Defense how hard is that to adjust when you know on first down nearly every time the Offense is going to be throwing the ball? It is not hard at all to stop and as a Defense you better be able to dial up some good pass rush and blitzes to go with the tendencies.
It's an easy call if I am a coordinator to have my kids ready for play action and know that nearly all downs are going to be pass rush up front, and pass reads in the secondary. The turnovers were key points in the game, first quarter interception and fourth quarter interception to nearly seal the game proved to be the difference on the score board in the end. Again, all execution.
Grading the film:
Quarterback Grade: C-
Brock never seemed to find a rhythm. From the very first series of the game it was very clear B.O. was not settled and pass after pass... 65 to be precise, the ball was either behind the target or somewhere just out of reach. Just based on passing touch alone it was one of Brock's worst games this season and the INTs were not the best throws we have seen from his performances this year.
His pocket presence was great and the footwork to move around in relation to the pass rush was some of the best he has had all year yet in the end it didn't get the job accomplished and the Offense sputtered based on the game plan which put all the pressure on Brock to perform.
Offensive Line Grade:
Run Blocking: F
Pass Blocking: B+
This group is one that I have watched in detail this whole season and one that I know how to play with and against. The effort across the board just isn't there and the lack of get off with some horrible footwork, or lack of footwork in general, are just not going to be enough to see the production this Offensive playbook is capable of. The run effort from Andrew Sampson and Adam Tello inside really let the Offense down. I watched them on film every single play and the guys just don't get the push inside the zone scheme requires from the guard position.
It was very obvious that Tello has not played enough and the relationship between guard and center positions was almost nonexistent. When you watch great Offensive lines work together it all comes down to their relationships in terms of how they can react and pick up things with the guy next to them. This does not happen play after play.
Another important key to Offensive line success is the ability to be able to communicate with one another on the fly. Defenses will hide blitzes and stunts to their best so if the O-Line can't talk pre-snap you will see breakdowns left and right. I noticed several times throughout the game the Line sliding away from the blitzing side which was declared very early pre-snap. This mental bust only falls on the guys who are out there and being presented with the blitz in front of them.
They have to make the right calls to assure the blitz get picked up. More than once there were two Defenders who showed a go call outside of the Offensive Tackle which in that case a "fan" call must be made which would send out the center and guard to that side basically sliding the line towards the blitz. This didn't happen and several times it completely blew up the play call the Devils had in place.
One of the biggest was in the fourth quarter when Cameron Marshall was blasted by the outside linebacker of the Wildcats. It was the one of the hardest hits I saw him take all year and it's no wonder he is beat up.
Running Backs Grade: C-
Not all of this grade falls on the running backs as a lone position group but the low grade reflects what I saw was the overall effort from the group. Too many times the pass blocks were not solid and the rush was really able to pressure Brock. The fakes were hardly ran out on the play action which should keep linebackers honest and overall the group under achieved. The one question I have is that if it is that Marshall is beat up why doesn't James Morrison get any carries? After what we saw of him in some earlier weeks he was running with great effort! If Cam is slowed then in there is no reason Morrison shouldn't see at least five+ carries in that game.
Wide Receiver Grade: B+
This group tired and tired hard to keep the Offense in motion as Brock was able to hook up with eight different players. Gerell Robinson had his best game of the season racking up 11 receptions for 199 yards and a TD. Ross and Pflugrad also had some big catches and both tallied 77 yards receiving. Jamal Miles just never could get it going in the passing game mainly due to the missed blocks on the edge by the perimeter receivers who missed blocks or were blown up throughout a lot of the game. Mike Willie had the one big drop in the 3rd Quarter which could have set the tone for the whole second half as he was wide open and most likely would have scored. This is a very talented group and yet it's crazy to say with the 487 receiving yards that there was probably well over 100 yards just left out there.
As a whole we expect more from this Sun Devil Offense. The fans know what kind of weapons we have in terms of explosive receivers and dynamic backs. So now the jury is speaking... Why can't we score more than 27 points against a team that has one of the worst Defenses in the Pac-12? My answer is the guys up front and the lack of Offensive Line production. It's plain and simple. With this playbook and play calling the game is going to be won and lost up front.
Talking about the Defense:
Another game and another disappointment from the guys in Maroon and Gold. The Defense allowed 494 yards of Offense and this game forced zero turnovers. There were so many plays I was saying Wow! Awesome! Great play D-Side and yet the very next down I was wanting to rip out my teeth and walk away from what I was watching. It is very clear to me the relationship between D-Line and Linebackers is nearly non-existent! When I say that I am talking about guys being able to fill holes, take on blocks with wrong arms and keep the Defense solid in terms of gap assignments.
Far too often it is clear the D-End and Outside Backer are not even close to knowing what one another are doing. A play will happen where the Defensive End will squeeze the tackle and come under the kick out block only there is no backer there to force the play. Or the very next couple downs the End will then wrong arm the blocker staying outside and the Backer will also jump out because of what had previously happened putting two defenders in one gap and opening up some huge holes.
The 3rd down and short plays that it was going to be a clear Nick Foles keep showed guys standing up tall catching blocks and really acting like that didn't expect that play call to be run.
The Defensive Secondary and the zone cover two and three that ASU lives and breathes by is now a very destructive force. It is very obvious in their spacing and eyes play after play they are just completely unfocused on the threats from the Offense. Guys are playing too off the Wide Out with the relationship to the Safety over the top who himself is often far too outside the hashes and out of their responsible zone.
Vontaze in the middle had his eyes glued on Foles which didn't allow him to have his head on a swivel often times coming nowhere near the slant threat that would come into his area. The Defenses ability to not be able to pick up a back floating out of the backfield shows the undisciplined style of play plain and simple. It all falls back to that word, Execution and being able to perform the task at hand. If you are responsible for a zone or a man it is up to you to be reliable and not give into fatigue and the hype of the game to get you out of your responsibilities.
Either way, it's very obvious at this point... something needs to change! The clear showing of all of this came in the fourth quarter when the ASU Defense basically went in the tank. Guys were tired and couldn't use any proper technique when it came to tackling the ball carrier. Over pursuing, lack of footwork and being able to break down with great hips. Those are all things a great defense must have in the fourth quarter with the game on the line in order to be successful.
The lack of leadership is obvious and if it all doesn't change the Sun Devils will be lucky to not see a Cal Offense come into SDS on senior night and do much of the same!
Defensive Line Grade: D
I very much dislike giving this grade but the notes from the film study just don't lie. The guys I thought earlier in the year that were over achieving up front are now very much under achieving. Standing up way too high in both run and pass rush its clear some of the simple techniques that make up good line play are being forgotten... or maybe not taught, I'm not sure.
As I talked about in the Defensive summary it just seems like guys don't truly know how to play the edge when it comes to the run game. We don't squeeze tackles when it comes to veer releases. And all that comes down to is being responsible, knowing that every down you need to get your hands on the points of contact which are the Offensive Tackles V of the neck with the inside hand and shoulder crown with the outside hand.
If you make that your goal every single play then the rest of your game and reactions should all fall into place. Another thing to note with that concept and something I talked about earlier in the year is the pass rush and being able to take on half a man. Play after play guys like Jamaar Jarrett, who we have seen dominate games, were just rushing down the middle of guys which allows the O-Lineman to have all the blocking surface they want.
It is way too hard to break blocks and hands of any good Offensive Tackle if they have a hold of you in a legal fashion which is what that type of rush allows them to do. Coleman and Smith were doing much of the same of this type of rushing. The only guy that was consistently rushing the edge and running the "hoop" was Junior Onyeali yet his counter moves were not there and more often than not he just over ran the target, (QB).
I am now sold that Junior is one either on his own out there in terms of play assignment, or he is not doing what he is coached to do. I know he is talented in terms of pass rushing ability yet play after play he is either taking the move inside, so into the B gap, which then completely breaks down contain on the QB and it came back in several plays to really hurt the Defense. On some of these rushes Junior would often rush right into the D-Tackle knocking them off their rush as well basically neutralizing two rushers with a mistake like that.
I know that Bray runs a gap responsible Defense to containing the passer is a must and unless you have another outside rusher the inside move can only be if you are at the same level as the QB or deeper.
My one highlight I really took away from the D-Line play was the play of newcomer to the group Carl Bradford. His effort on his production plays were great! He is still very raw but overall the kid played really hard when he was in there and had the games one and only sack to show for it!
My last note about the D-Line and some of the techniques I am watching are the giveaways when we are running stunts. On almost every stunt or twist we ran up front some sort of stance give away was oh so clear out of the D-Lineman running it. Now, if I am the O-Lineman I am calling that out right away to the guy next to me to watch the slant, or the switch and sure enough UofA had no problem picking up any rush the Defense attempted up front.
The D-Lineman up front have to do a much better job hiding these assignments or really there is no point in these games at all.
Linebackers Grade: C
I was not impressed by the overall effort from this group and what you would expect to see in a game with such magnitude. The backers were literally on some plays allowing O-Lineman to block them and I say that only because the effort to get off blocks was really just not there on a lot of plays.
The one thing I was most disappointed in was on some of the screen plays to watch receivers, who are guys that are half the strength and size of some of our guys in the box, making solid blocks and allowing big holes to be created. That should never be ok if you are a line backer, allowing a receiver to make blocks on you all game long. As the game got into the fourth quarter it was very clear this group really got tired and some of the over pursuing on the touch down plays led to the missed tackles and scores on the board.
The pursuit grade would be a C as well as this group took too many plays for granted and I know many of them would want them back if they could. But that is the game of football, No Regrets... or you get beat! Woulda, coulda, shoulda... right? Well, it is too late now yet the Seniors on this team still have a lot to play for and guys like Shelly Lyons and Colin Parker need to step up and make this last game against Cal their best all year.
Secondary Grade: D
For consecutive weeks we have watched this group regress and Saturday night was another one of those performances. The UofA coaching staff knew what they were up against and with Nick Foles at the reigns the attempt to exploit the Defense was very obvious. The spacing in the zone defense was off all night long and guys were allowing far too many easy throws close to the sideline which the cover two should prevent more often than not.
I thought Osahon Irabor played one of his better games all year and made some great plays on the ball. As far as the other corner position that was manned by Deveron Carr and Alden Darby that was very far from Irabor's performance. These guys gave great effort, no knock there at all, but it is just clear that the fundamentals that make great corner play are absent. I will always love up effort play which is what these guys will get from me yet the eyes and ability to have your head on a swivel in your zone defense really needs to be better from these two.
Clint Floyd and Eddie Elder tired all game to come up and really put the hit on ball carriers. They both played very fiery in terms of that however how about with that you bring the arms on the tackle? That is basic Defensive skills you have to have as a tackler. Bringing your arms and wrapping up cloth on the runner. Play after play it was a reckless missile coming in for a tackle instead of guys that should know how to make these plays (they are both seniors). One more week... Senior night! Make something of it Secondary!
The Defense once again proved that execution is everything. Not just for three quarters but for all four! It is those plays that you want back that come back to haunt you as a player and it is that special player that leaves it all out there and doesn't need to think about the ones they want back. That is what will always separate in the game of football the good player from the great player.
The one who knows his assignments and plays every down like they won't ever play another. If this group of defenders as a whole could find that mentality and put it all together... it would be something scary to watch!
Special Team Grades:
Alex Garoutte went 2/2 with his field goals and had 3 touch backs which was probably a high on the season for him. Way to go this game Alex!
Josh Hubner put a great game together with his very high long kicks. UofA had no punt returns and it was all due to Hubner's great hang time.
Coverage Teams: B+
Both in punt and kickoff coverage there was improvement. It was clear guys were making great effort to avoid and get off blocks. Some great kicking and what do you know.. a solid performance from these groups.
Kick Return Groups: A
The Devils Kickoff return group finally saw some more production and the returners really had the wheels turning. Miles and Middlebrooks both sprung a couple good returns and had they had just a couple more blocks some fireworks from the Buttes would have been the thing to see. Miles 28.5 average on two punt returns were also due to some good efforts by guys on the return team. This set the Sun Devil Offense up with some great field position.
Overall Team Grades:
Special Teams: A
The season that once seemed so promising is now one that still somehow has a lot of possibilities even in its darkest days. The fact is this: The Sun Devils can still end up in the Conference Championship Game and could find a way to sneak into the Rose Bowl.
Do they deserve it at 6-5, of course not, yet in the South Division of the Pac-12 that is the way the cookie crumbles this year. Would I be in full support if all of this did happen? You better believe it. At this point, I would take anything to save something this team and fan base had in its goals since early last spring.
The chips will now fall where they may and decisions will be made on all angles of the program. The last couple years of dismal play is not something this University will put up with and history has shown that if you can't get it done then you probably more than likely not to have a job.
That is life and that is the way the world of sports work.
So does going to a Rose Bowl game change all that? Does it save grace and make everything ok? I am not anyone who makes those decisions and hopefully whoever does knows what an elite and special program the Arizona State Sun Devils can be.
May we kick the tail off the Golden Bear this weekend and the Seniors go out with a bang! They still have everything to play for so hopefully that is enough to see guys go out this upcoming week and give it everything they have got! I look forward to it and I will be there dressed in Gold rocking my full support! Go Devils!
Defensive end Kyle Caldwell played for the Sun Devils from 2003-2006 and finished with Sun Devil career with 90 tackles and 10.5 sacks. He earned Pac-10 All-Freshman honors in 2003 and Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 recognition in 2006. A graduate of Scottsdale Saguaro High School, Caldwell was a member of the Sabercats' coaching staff who won the 2010 Class 4A Division I state championship.