Last season, Arizona State cumulatively allowed more points in the second quarter (99) than any other on the year, while the Devils only outscored opponents by a margin of 91-86 during third quarter play. By comparison, the next lowest total for the remaining three quarters is 126 scored collectively in the fourth quarter of 2012 games.
What this means is that ASU allowed opponents to build momentum before halftime, then the Sun Devils struggled mightily to reclaim any advantages in the third quarter of many games.
In ASU's first loss, at Missouri, the Sun Devils trailed by a slight 10-7 margin at the half, however the Tigers outscored ASU 14-7 in the second and third quarters, helping Mizzou to a four-point win, 24-20.
During ASU's four-game losing streak last season, the midgame collapses became an excruciating nuisance.
Against UCLA, ASU allowed a touchdown run with 1:08 remaining in the second quarter to allow the Bruins to take a 21-17 edge into the locker room. UCLA outscored ASU 21-12 over the course of the second and third quarters and ultimately claimed a two-point 45-43 win in Tempe.
The next week, ASU held a 16-10 first-quarter edge in Corvallis against Oregon State before the Beavers knotted the game at 19 at halftime by way of a field goal as time expired in the second quarter. Oregon State ultimately outscored ASU 19-3 between the second and third quarters and eventually beat ASU by 10, 36-26.
The following game, USC scored a touchdown with 35 seconds remaining in the second quarter to bring the game to a 14-14 tie—the third consecutive game in which ASU allowed the game to be tied or relinquished a lead by way of an opponent's scoring drive that occurred in the final two minutes of the second quarter.
Though ASU ultimately won the game, the Sun Devils again allowed an opponent to claim momentum to round out the first half when Arizona connected on a field goal as time expired in the second quarter to cut the Sun Devil lead from 14-6 to 14-9.
ASU had no problem striking first, as the Sun Devils outstandingly scored first in 11 of 13 contests last year, however as the games settled down far too often the Devils were outperformed.
With a highly challenging schedule in 2013, ASU will have to sustain early momentum and not allow teams to accelerate into and out of the locker room at halftime.
Freshmen Specialist Kick into Gear
Entering 2013, ASU faces the unique prospect of having true freshmen fill the placekicker and punter roles.
As strong as Hubner was last year, ASU's kicking game has been equally shaky the past few seasons. Alex Garoutte was demoted midway through the 2012 season and though Jon Mora put forth a decent effort, ASU pursued another scholarship kicker by signing Zane Gonzalez (pictured) this spring. Neither Garoutte nor Mora performed particularly well this spring, leaving a clear opportunity for Gonzalez to earn the nod this fall despite his inexperience.
Sun Devil fans are far too familiar with the dramatics the kicking game can bring to football. Over the past three seasons, ASU has had four losses determined by three or fewer points in games in which the Sun Devils' kicker missed at least one field goal (Wisconsin 2010, USC 2010, Illinois 2011, UCLA, 2011). In those four games, three included missed field goal attempts of 36 yards or shorter (Wisconsin, 25 yards, Thomas Weber; Illinois, 32 yards, Alex Garoutte; UCLA, 36 yards, Garoutte). Needless to say, Sun Devil football would have been greatly affected by even just one or two more wins in the 2010 and '11 seasons.
If Gonzalez is able to win the kicking competition in fall camp, ASU would be tremendously well-served if he can be reliable—even if not spectacular—during his rookie season.
ASU's schedule brings the Sun Devils a list of challenges—especially in the first half of the season—which requires the learning curves for these two freshmen to be minimized in order for ASU to avoid special teams liabilities.
JUCO Transfers Catch On Quickly
The paradox of signing several talented junior college transfers in one class is that though it is exciting to introduce a handful of potential impact players into the fold, it can be a risky endeavor to largely depend on newcomers to immediately take on detailed roles.
Over the past decade, typically only about one-third of ASU's junior college transfers have proven to be consistent starters and half that amount have earned postseason awards.
Of the 61 junior college transfers signed to NLI's from 2002-12, only 10 have earned First-Team, Second-Team or Honorable Mention postseason conference accolades (LB Justin Burks, LB Dale Robinson, S Zach Catanese, CB Justin Tryon, RB Ryan Torain, S Troy Nolan, DE Luis Vasquez, P Josh Hubner, WR/KR Rashad Ross, RB Marion Grice). Of those 10, only five earned all-league distinction both seasons (Robinson 2004-05, Catanese 2005-06, Tryon 2006-07, Nolan 2007-08, Vasquez 2007-08), with Grice entering his senior season with the definite expectation to become the sixth.
Last season, of the nine JUCO signees, only three were substantial contributors (Marion Grice, Chris Young, Steffon Martin), while players such as Alonzo Agwuenu, Darwin Rogers and Jake Sheffield were serviceable if unspectacular role players.
This fall, ASU will welcome wide receivers Joseph Morris and Jaelen Strong, three-back De'Marieya Nelson, defensive linemen Demetrius Cherry and Marcus Hardison (pictured), linebackers Eriquel Florence and Antonio Longino and defensive backs Solomon Means and Damarious Randall into the fold from the JUCO ranks. Offensive lineman Nick Kelly joined the team at midseason and served as a backup to starting center Kody Koebensky.
Of the group, as many as five could be expected to serve a first-team role immediately upon their arrival to Tempe. Of course, ASU could have struck gold this season with its haul of JUCO signees, but expecting the world of new transfers can prove to be a challenging expectation to accomplish.
Fortify Run Defense
It seems inconceivable that a team that ranked in the nation's top-10 in pass defense, interceptions, pass efficiency defense, sacks and tackles for loss could also rank in the bottom third in the nation in run defense. However, that was the case with ASU last season as the Sun Devils ranked 81st in the FBS after allowing 182.9 yards per game on the ground.
The numbers speak for themselves, as in all four Pac-12 losses ASU suffered last season, the Sun Devils' opponent rushed for a greater total than what proved to be each team's final per-game rushing average.
Making matters worse, it wasn't just a 400-plus yard explosion by Oregon or a prominent showing by the nation's leading rusher in Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, as ASU made a few average rushers and rushing teams appear superhuman.
Prior to facing the Sun Devils, Oregon State's Terron Ward had totaled only 10 carries for 32 yards in five games on the year but blasted a career-best 146 yards on 19 carries versus ASU in a Beaver victory. The next week, USC's Curtis McNeal entered the game with an average of 47.7 yards in seven games but ripped off a 163-yard effort, which ultimately proved to be the career-best single-game total for the 2012 senior and paced the Trojans to a win over the Devils.
Spring practices did not showcase much of an improvement in defending the run, lending credence to the belief that the incoming 2013 signing class members such as Marcus Hardison and Demetrius Cherry along the defensive line and Eriquel Florence and Antonio Longino at linebacker might be substantial factors in creating the requisite depth for ASU to improve its run defense.
With Will Sutton (pictured) and Carl Bradford returning, ASU should still create dominant backfield pressure, and in the spring intriguing depth surfaced at cornerback, giving hope that the Devils can retain a very solid pass defense. However, for Arizona State to advance from above average to elite, clamping down against the run is an absolute must.
One slight advantage ASU faces is the departure of key rushers for half of the teams on its regular season schedule. However, time will tell how affected ASU's opponents will be by the losses of the likes of Montee Ball, Stepfan Taylor, Curtis McNeal, Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, John White and Johnathan Franklin, but the Devils' run "D" must step up to help limit both the superstar rushers as well as the budding role players.
Defend Home Turf
There's no debating the rigor of ASU's 2013 schedule, but the collective challenge of the 12-game slate is compounded when factoring in that the two toughest opponents (Stanford and Notre Dame) will be played away from Sun Devil Stadium. Additionally, ASU has a late season trip to UCLA to face the two-time defending division champs. Utah and Washington State round out the Sun Devils' road schedule, making a winning road record a challenging objective.
For ASU to put together a season with no more than three regular season losses, it is mandatory that the Devils defend Sun Devil Stadium with unwavering ferocity. ASU's seven-game home load consists of four teams that, like the Sun Devils, finished the 2012 regular season with a 7-5 record (Wisconsin, USC, Washington, Arizona). With that parity in place, the Devils face several teams with which they certainly can contend but absolutely cannot overlook. Oregon State, a nine-win team from 2012, also will visit Tempe as will lowly Colorado and FCS opponent Sacramento State.
Over the past three seasons, ASU has suffered home losses ranging from frustrating to devastating, including UCLA last season, Arizona and California in 2011 and Oregon and Stanford in 2010. ASU's clear ambition is to reach the 2014 Rose Bowl and since the program's last appearance in Pasadena on New Year's Day, the Sun Devils have only had one season with a perfect home record (2004). To make its way to a shot at the "Granddaddy", ASU has a small margin for error in terms of its home slate.
Step Up to the Plate in Big Games
Certainly, this sounds like a no-brainer and is a rudimentary objective of every team in every sport, but based on recent history and the rigor of the 2013 schedule it is a key aspect for Arizona State to be successful this season.
The most staggering statistic ASU will have to improve this season it its recent run of horrid results against successful opponents. Over the past five seasons, the Sun Devils are 6-26 in regular season games against BCS conference opponents that ultimately finished their regular season schedule with at least a .500 record. A .188 batting average will quickly get a major league hitter demoted to the minors, and as a football win percentage against above average competition that sort of success rate (or complete lack thereof) will drastically alter a season's expectations in a hurry.
ASU's schedule is not just top heavy with the likes of Notre Dame and Stanford, but is highly competitive essentially from top to bottom. Of ASU's 11 FBS opponents in 2013, eight finished above .500 for the 2012 regular season and each of those eight can plausibly be predicted to finish no worse than 6-6 this regular season. With that challenge in place, the Sun Devils will have to have the greatest success against bowl-caliber teams as the program has had in many seasons to accomplish the goals of a conference championship.
Statistically last season, ASU had an overall record of 2-4 against teams with at least a .500 record on the year, defeating Arizona and Navy to end the year after earlier suffering consecutive losses to Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC.
To explain the challenges, look no further than the quarterback position as Taylor Kelly's performances were drastically different in wins versus losses. In ASU's eight wins, Kelly threw 21 touchdowns with zero interceptions as opposed to eight touchdowns and nine interceptions in the team's five losses. Additionally, Kelly was sacked 20 times in the five losses and only 11 times in the eight wins.
In the end, the team's resilience and focus differed greatly between the wins and losses; ASU avoided significant mistakes in virtually all wins but had multiple costly errors in the losses. Overall, ASU will have to right some historically impactful wrongs to lift the program to the heights of its lofty aspirations. In the past 15 seasons, only three times (2002, '04, '07) has ASU won at least eight regular season games, a mark that presumes to be the absolute lowest total needed this year for the 2013 season to be considered even a moderate success.
In year one in Tempe, Todd Graham reclaimed the Territorial Cup and guided ASU to its first bowl win since 2005. If he can greatly improve ASU's success against its toughest competitors, year two can be a special, memorable season.