Devils in the Details: UCLA - ASU

Headed into Thursday’s match up, the Sun Devils were primed to host the Bruins for what was to be a huge game with division implications. The “Blackout” was set and the atmosphere was rocking at Sun Devil stadium. Unfortunately, UCLA put on one of the most explosive shows any road team has ever accomplished in Tempe showcasing the vast improvement that the 2014 Sun Devils need to accomplish.

Talking about the Offense

Highs and lows surrounded this unit’s performance as we saw ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici take the wheel for his first start.

Reading most of the stat line you would think the Sun Devils ran away with this game as they put up 626 total yards of offense. Key turnovers, big drops and a lack of detailed execution is what prevented the Sun Devils from keeping the fight. Five trips to the red-zone and only two touchdowns make it hard to win a game when your opponent is salivating for revenge.

I was very impressed at times with how Bercovici was able to push the ball down field and his 488 yards passing with three scores speaks how well he stepped in. The offense did allow 17 points to be scored off turnovers which is another huge reason the Bruins were able to win this game.

Positive Stats

38 First Downs

626 Yards of Total Offense

1 Punt

34:07 Time of Possession (105 Plays)

2 for 2 Field Goal Attempts

Negative Stats

4 Turnovers

2 of 5 on Fourth Down

17 Points off Turnovers

Position Grades

Quarterback

Grade: C+

For a quarterback making his first career start, Mike Bercovici did quite the job filling up the stat sheet. 488 yards passing with three scores shows a backup who has studied up through his career and was ready to go when his number was called.

Some of the plays to critique from his performance are of course the two second quarter interceptions, one of which was right before the half that led to a pick six and momentum changer that ASU could never come back from. The fumble in the third quarter was caused by a relentless pass rush yet when you watch the film, there is a nice path from him to tuck up and run. Bercovici is much more of a pass first type of quarterback from what we have seen which of course caused him to stand his ground in the pocket for just a second too long. You have to feel that clock ticking in these moments and take great care of the football.

In the running game, it looked like there were several zone read plays that Bercovici miss read as well. UCLA was not concerned with his running ability and thus they crashed the end down which should be a clear pull for the QB. Instead, the give caused a no gain play. You’d love to see him keep a few of these, especially early in the game to keep everyone honest. Overall a solid performance, yet the three turnovers force a C+ grade.

Running Backs

Grade: C+

Really an average performance from one of the Sun Devils deepest position groups. Deantre Lewis lead the group with 46 yards rushing (5.1 Avg.) and 26 receiving. He looked very smooth at times and showed some good burst up to the second level.

D.J. Foster spent most of his time outside of the tackles with his pre snap alignment which is what many of us thought was coming in this game plan. He totaled 30 yards rushing and 68 yards receiving which is by far his lowest totals of the season. It was very clear that when he had the football in his hands, the UCLA defense was swarming. The gang tackles on Foster were very fierce and it was clear they understood they needed to stop #8 when he had the ball.

Both of the freshman, Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard added productivity and looked good on their touches. This was a game that just got away from this group when the score was out of reach, yet leaving the game with no scores and several pass protection breakdowns is why the position graded out with a C+.

Wide Receivers

Grade: A-

The most production we have seen out of this group all season long and a breakout performance we have been waiting for came from Cameron Smith. Smith had eight catches for 95 yards and one touchdown and looked very good in his route running. Love seeing this type of production out of him because I personally believe he is a guy that can really open up things in the offense working in counterpart with Jaelen Strong.

Strong led the team with 12 catches and 146 yards of receiving yet was held out of the end zone. Ellis Jefferson also had a good game catching a touchdown late in the third quarter. Watching the receivers collect efforts, it really showed they ran very hard in Thursday’s game and tried to make as much of an impact as possible. Solid efforts in the run/screen blocking. This was the best I’ve seen this group perform here in 2014 and I hope they keep building on this performance as the Devils move forward.

Tight Ends - H-Back

Grade: B+

Solid night of effort from this group. Kody Kohl showed up with three catches and one score while De’Marieya Nelson only had one big catch of 27 yards. I thought that these two guys tried really hard in their run fits yet at times were sort of pushed around and didn’t finish blocks as well as we have seen from them. I point of emphasis going forward as the next two weeks of defenders they will see only seem to get bigger physically.

Offensive Line

Grade: B

The offensive line knew it would be tested with lots of pre snap looks and a blitz scheme that was going to try and take advantage of a quarterback in his first start. At times, the ASU offensive line showed why they are one of the strongest position groups on this team. Yet there were lots of one on one efforts during this game that also showed UCLA getting the better of the matchup in the trenches.

The pass blocking was great all night long. Bercovici was only sacked the one time that led to the fumble, and for the most part the pocket was set up well all evening.

Where ASU fell short up front was in their base run blocking technique and play action pass protection. Too many times it looked like the UCLA defender won his matchup because of a small lack of discipline in the technique. Too many guys were dipping their heads too low, not working their hands in place and a few times just straight whiffed on some big blocks. This really kept the run game in check and because of that the play action pass game was also keyed in on. ASU will need to run the ball early against USC if a road victory to come.

Talking about the Defense

Probably a night that Coach Todd Graham and staff will want to put far behind them yet also a great teaching tool for how much this squad needed to improve on their basic fundamentals. And really, that is all it came down to was the fundamentals and the lack of detail there which allowed UCLA to score the most points by an opponent in Sun Devil Stadium.

Missed tackles, poor execution by all three levels of defense and defensive special team plays that allowed the Bruins to run away with this game.

Positive Stats

19 First Downs Allowed

Negative Stats

580 Total Yards Allowed (10 Yards Per Play)

0 Turnovers Created

UCLA was 6-6 on Red-Zone Chances

462 Missed Tackles

Position Grades

Defensive Line

Grade: D+

Let us call this performance what it really was, poor, and get to the bottom on why the defensive line has played so poorly so far this season.

To start, lets point out the obvious - ASU is young and inexperienced up front. Yet that doesn’t have to be a flaw if you can get the best of each individual from play start to finish and fit in solid technique. Things that look like the defensive line has really gotten away from.

One of the major things that stand out from the play up front is the lack of separation from defender to blocker. Playing with great length and long arms which doesn’t allow you to give up your pads and blocking surface. And from that point, finding a way to force violence into your hands/escape move and clear your gap. When you watch the efforts up front, there is a ton of these basic principles missing and because the Sun Devil defensive line is not overly massive in size; the point of emphasis here has to be even greater in order to succeed.

Picture this - The basic “Shock, Lock and Rip” technique that has been around and coached for years. This is broken down as fitting your hands on the points of contact (breaking down the blocker by halves - your assigned shade and gap integrity), forcing separation with violence and long arms (the reason bench pressing is an important measuring tool for linemen) and ripping off the blocker into your gap/shade with extreme effort. So to get that all out of the way, which is pretty basic when dialing into the technique, you will see so much going on that is away from those core concepts. Interior lineman allowing their pads to be swallowed up in both pass and run fits because they don’t give the extra efforts to press off and work their hips in space.

Too many times running down the middle of a blocker rather than taking on half the man, gaining ground and working your developed counters. It all equals out to be what I take away as a total breakdown in some of the basic concepts of playing defensive line. This goes for both interior and perimeter defenders up front and honestly it looks like everyone in this group needs to spend about 30 minutes per practice working on the sled and learning to clear their pads.

There were also some huge plays UCLA was able to rip off in the run game that led to first downs because of the breakdown in zone read rules. There were at least three plays were the defensive end came streaking up field rather than reading his block and squeezing the B/C gap and thus allowed a major cut back into the second level of defense. This makes the linebackers job darn near impossible to read and it looked like it was all happening because guys were falling for the fakes and getting away from their assigned rules. I’d love to know the truth and exact number on how many busted assignments there were up front when it came to gap integrity and run game assignments.

The last bit of critique comes from an overall effort standpoint. This was an area of concern in the Colorado game and came true again as we saw the UCLA game play out. Far too many loafs and guys taking plays off thinking someone else is going to make the play. Not going to win you many games when your young defensive line decides to take plays off.

Linebackers

Grade: D+

A lot of the breakdown here looks similar to the defensive line and of course when your first level of defense is not playing well; it is going to make it hard to succeed at the second level. The below average grade comes from countless missed tackles and what looked to be horrible pass coverage based on alignments and key reads.

When you watch UCLA’s zone read/pass option concepts, the defense has to play honest and not get sucked into the play action so hard. Using your eyes and playing your man will often allow you to see the play concept and if you follow these rules every play you will keep the offense in check.

Too many times players were free and clear getting through the second level in their pass routes and more often than not this led to big plays and a defense that had holes all over it. Had Hundley not had three drops in this game he would have gone for a near perfect 21 for 23. Let’s say the Sun Devils don’t miss all the open field tackles that occurred Thursday night, the UCLA offense would have still succeeded in moving the football because of the lack of attention in the pass defense as a whole.

Secondary

Grade: C-

If the first two levels of defense are struggling you darn sure know this group is going to have its troubles as well. Yet what I really took away was too many times guys were losing their way because their eyes were getting too caught up in the back field.

There has to be a defined line in place when you are on the back end and you know where your zone is and what responsibilities are. If a receiver enters that zone, you have to honor their presence and breakdown with the technique taught and make the plays you coached to make. A lot of the free releases down field did help the cause yet the secondary still has to dial in and come up with some big plays. Veteran players in this group were letting plays get away from them. That has to change to forward if this group wants to succeed.

Special Team Grades

Field Goal Team: A+

Zane Gonzalez was 2 for 2 from 49 and 24.

Punt Team: A

Matt Haack attempted one punt and it went for 46 yards and was downed inside the 20 yard line.

Punt Return Team: C

UCLA punted three times, all of which were not returned. We have talked about it for weeks yet it really seems that the schemes in place are nowhere near working when it comes to setting up any type of return. ASU players letting guys run clear by them at times and really no effort as a whole to allow a returner to make any type of play.

Kickoff Team: F

Six returns for 223 yards and one touchdown. At times, the kickoff team looked to be lost when it came to keeping their lane integrity and breakdown down strong enough of your blocker to impact the play. There were several times that the ASU defender could have easily impacted the play yet with the effort and technique given, UCLA was able to win the play.

Kickoff Return Team: C

Another collective group that has yet to accomplish anything explosive over the last couple of seasons. Too many individual battles lost on each one of these plays which has not allowed any type of big return to set up.

Overall Grades

Offense: B-

Defense: D+

Special Teams: C-

Offensive MVP: Cameron Smith

Defensive MVP: Damarious Randall

Every game is a learning experience for a team as the season goes forward and the tape against UCLA can be used for every bit of that. Individual players judging their own performances and a collective look at what needs to be fixed was surly addressed by this coaching staff after last Thursday’s loss to the Bruins.

More than anything, I really hope this team works on the energy and effort each player brings to the field on every single play. A mentality that there will be no play taken off and a concept drilled into everyone’s head that they are going to make the play and not wait for someone else to step up. All good things going forward if the Sun Devils can get after those concepts and fix the small things along the way.

Can’t wait to watch the team compete this week on the road against USC in what will be another statement game for the South conference.

#UnfinishedBusiness

-KC50

Defensive end Kyle Caldwell played for ASU 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 is also a member of the Sabercats' coaching staff who won the 2008, 2011 and 2013 Class 4A Division I state championship.

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