Devils in the Details: ASU at USC

Former Arizona State defensive end Kyle Caldwell breaks down the good, the bad and the miraculous from the Sun Devils' dramatic 38-34 win over the Trojans.

Oh what a glorious night to be a Sun Devil in what will surely go down as one of the greatest comeback wins this program has ever seen. This was an action packed thriller of a game that went a full 60 minutes with so many ups and downs for both teams. Stars were born and memories were made in the Sun Devils 38-34 victory over the Trojans. Let us take a look at the film and discuss the individual performances.

Talking about the Offense

This was a crazy stat line to see at the day’s end with some eye popping and not so much offensive stats. For the second straight week the Devils offensive run game was nearly non-existent as they rushed for a net 31 yards. Nothing close to how the season started off and clearly lots has changed in the backfield the last two weeks when it comes to run threats.

Nonetheless, the ASU offense and quarterback Mike Bercovici found a way to move the ball and did so when it mattered most - the fourth quarter. Bercovici passed for 510 yards and five touchdowns as the receiving crew tore up the USC secondary scoring 20 fourth quarter points to overcome a two score deficit. There were some huge contributions from the receiving core in this victory and we will break all that down in the position grades. Zero turnovers. 541 yards of offense and lots to build on into the bye week.

Positive Stats

510 Yards Passing - Five Touchdowns

8 Avg. per Play - 68 Plays

1 of 1 on Fourth Down

2 for 2 Red-Zone Scores-Chances - 1 TD, 1 FG

Negative Stats

31 Rushing Yards - 1.4 YPR, 21 Yards Lost

22:42 Time of possession

3 of 12 on Third Down

Position Grades

Quarterback

Grade: A+

A star was born right before our eyes and a performance that will go down in Sun Devil history as one the best ever.

Quarterback Mike Bercovici has patently been waiting for his opportunity to show the Sun Devil fan base why he has been so dedicated to this program. Saturday afternoon he took full advantage of that putting up huge numbers in the coliseum and a victory none of us will forget any time soon. One of the things I was most impressed with was Berco’s pocket presence and ability to step up and feel the rush. His feet were always buzzing and he was set up well when delivering the football.

USC was showing lots of different looks pre snap and stacking the box to defend the run game. Breaking that all down and having the patience to progress through his reads showed for some great playmaking. The one critique falls in line with the run game and why the last two weeks ASU has suffered in this area. With ASU’s offense all being based out of the read zone, you have to keep the defense honest with the quarterback and Berco has to pull some of these reads. After watching the film, there is at least 5 clear pull reads that he could have kept off the edge for a positive gain. Without this the SC defense was able to really crash the edge of the offensive line and really didn’t seem too concerned with trying to defend the QB run.

Now, perhaps this is what he has been told to do and thus the results, yet if that is the case, the play calling has to account for the backside of the zone play of those defenders will drastically effect the play time and time again. Congratulations to Bercovici and the performance he put up. So well earned and Coach Graham said it best - Had he transferred, he would have missed out on one of the greatest nights of his life. Mike is a true example of what it means to be a Sun Devil.

Running Backs

Grade: B-

The grade and the stats don’t match up but that doesn’t have to do so much with this group’s performance from Saturday’s game. The run game had a very hard time getting anything going and there is a lot to break down on that front, mainly from the offensive line and what they were presented with. D.J. Foster was held to just 13 yards on 10 carries with the rest of the backfield combined for 24 yards on seven carries.

The USC defensive front dominated the line of scrimmage and when the scoreboard got away from the Devils, they were forced to turn to the air. Foster caught five passes for 73 yards and one score, dropping one that would have been a sure touchdown. What was great to watch from this group though is how they fought through this game and you can see great effort being given down to the last minute. The pass blocking was very strong and every time there was a back in helping on pass they did a great job.

For this kind of effort this group graded out well.

Tight Ends/H-Back

Grade: D+

This position group had their work cut out for them as they took on the USC box and everything they threw at them. Run blitzes, overloads and some great athletes on the other side of the ball made for a long night in the run blocking department. Kody Kohl really got rocked on a few run plays early in the game and although his efforts were solid, he lost more match ups than he won.

At times, I think he plays too high and needs to work on his knee bend which would help him get those hips through and explode more on contact. He could also work on getting his hands griped more inside and win with strength. I see a lot of defenders working off him easily because he has no inside hand placement. He caught a great play on the early 2-pt conversion yet dropped a touchdown that was a huge let down causing ASU to settle for a field goal.

De’Marieya Nelson also recorded a catch for 11 yards and really looks to be a missing link in the offense now that he is spending time on both sides of the ball. Such a big time player who has tons of explosive ability in this playbook. You would love to see Coach Norvell get him involved some more and find a way to work his play calls out in space or over the middle.

Wide Receivers

Grade: A+

What a performance from a position group that is maturing right before our eyes.

Cameron Smith, Jaelen Strong, Gary Chambers and Ellis Jefferson all came up with their own set of huge plays. I loved watching both Chambers and Jefferson out there making some awesome, key grabs that kept ASU moving the chains. Many of these took place late in the game and without those catches; the outcome would have been very different.

Cameron Smith also came up huge and huge late play that kept ASU in the game and showed how far this young man has come in the offense. He had lazar vision pulling in that ball as it was nearly tipped right in front of him, turned it up and took it 73 yards for the score. Without that play, you have to believe ASU does not win the game. And then came the “Jael Marry”. Strong’s performance was absolutely dominating. 10 catches for 202 yards with three scores is impressive to say the least and the last two years he has owned the Trojans.

We are witnessing one of the greatest receivers to ever play at ASU and I am grateful he is in Maroon and Gold.

Offensive Line

Grade: C+

A very up and down afternoon for this group as they were unable to get much of a push on a stout USC front. The run game was stuffed from the beginning of the game as several of ASU’s early runs were for a loss.

Give credit to USC for playing strong in the box and having some great run fits but the breakdown was on a lot of individual efforts from the Sun Devils. Right Tackle Tyler Sulka needs to find a way to work on his pad level. Through his run game progression, you see him playing far too high at times and he was really getting pushed around in the run department because of this.

On several of the “Buck Sweep” plays where Sulka is down blocking on the inside lineman, you see him get zero push and his defender impacts the play greatly.

With that all being said, Sulka did do a solid job in his pass protection and I like the way he uses his hands in space out there at the right edge. The interior zone blocking was once again broken up much like the week before against UCLA. It looks as if ASU is just not solid inside when it comes to working its double teams and being able to come off and take over the second level of defense. When you see the pair working together, the guy who is supposed to be taking over the down lineman is failing to secure that block before the double works off in space. Just a matter of working the heck out of these blocks and finding a way to work with what you have up front.

ASU is not the biggest group so when you see match ups like this you have to know there are going to be some losses up front. Some great film for this group to work on and hopefully we will see some improvements up front in the run game. It would be great to see this group work some true outside stretch type plays. I think their skill set and with the backs ASU has you would see some huge run plays out of this look rather than having your outside run scheme be based out of down blocks and pulling to gain the edge. Just let those athletic linemen work on getting on an edge and reaching.

With Foster in the backfield, he has the vision to push, bend and break on those cut back lanes. Make those big defenders have to run laterally and you will see the ASU’s athletes go to work up front.

Talking about the Defense

Well, this was a very interesting evening to say the least on this side of the ball. The prior week we were all witness to a lack of fundamentals that led to one big play after another for the opponent. This game here against USC had some of that yet as a collective group, you could tell they were trying hard to improve on those mistakes and efforts.

Lots of yards given up on the ground (220) and several defensive special team busts once again plague the Devils. In the pass game we saw a lot of wide open USC receivers and lots of dropped balls by those guys. Some major things to improve on going into the bye week.

Positive Stats

9.5 TFLs - 3 Sacks

3 Punts inside the 20 Yard Line

Negative Stats

220 Yards Allowed Rushing

1 Punt Return Touchdown Allowed

Zero Turnovers

Position Grades

Defensive Line

Grade: C-

Improvement every week. That is what we want to see from this group as a whole right now as the season marches on.

When it comes to everything they do up front, we just want to see these guys getting better and I think from the UCLA game to Saturday’s match up against USC there was a lot of that. I witnessed a lot more energy and effort up front to win blocks and overall it looked like guys were trying to win the hustle plays more than they have shown prior this season. Still far too many yards given up on the ground but I think a lot of that has to do with scheme and what ASU is allowing their players to get away with near and around the line of scrimmage.

Far too often you see Marcus Hardison jetting up field on clear run reads. There are four separate plays in this game where his tackle base blocks out on him to try and drive him out of the gap and he just runs wild up field with no intention of squeezing the tackle and trying to defend the run play. This is something we have seen the ASU defensive ends to for the last several years and I don’t understand any of that concept because of what it does to the rest of the defense on that side of the defense.

The B gap becomes wide enough to drive a truck through, the linebacker then has a huge area to cover if he doesn’t get scooped by the guard and the 1 or 3 tech to that side has nearly zero chance to impact the play with the run lane now widened that much further out. Basically it goes away from all the fundamentals of playing sound football at the line of scrimmage and defensive line play.

If your tackle blocks out on you in a run set, you need to fit your hands, hold your gap with eyes and hips and make sure you do your best trying to press him down and not get washed out of there. This helps the whole defensive cause to that side where they are trying to press the football and more often than not, if you are doing this correctly the ball is going to bounce right to you and you can impact the play. Very tired of seeing that undisciplined up field get off that constantly hurts the ASU defense.

As for the interior line, I thought Tashon Smallwood played his best game thus far. He was really trying hard to get a push inside and although he only had one tackle, he impacted a lot of plays with his efforts to the ball. Something to keep building on there for himself. Jaxon Hood still seems to take every third play off and I don’t fully understand how he is out there if that is going to be the efforts he gives. You want guys who are going to fly around and sacrifice their bodies. Players who don’t feel they have earned anything yet until it’s all said and done. Team guys who are going to do everything they can to help the cause. We want to see that kind of effort and as a former ASU defensive lineman, I feel I have a right to ask for that as well.

Breaking down the pass rush concepts, it still shows too many guys rushing down the middle of their blockers. USC has a very good sized offensive line and you are not going to win those battles if you choose to rush down the middle of one of them. You would love to see some exotic hands that get those bigs to have to turn and run with you. Opens up a whole mix of counter moves if you can accomplish this. Something we still see the ASU defensive line struggling with his their counter moves and you want to see these guys hitch up better and push the pocket once the QB steps up and through his progression.

Again, all things that this group is learning and it will be interesting to see how they keep progressing as the season moves forward.

Linebackers

Grade: C

Much of this groups troubles have come from the play up front. Being able to read your keys and flow to your assigned gaps is tough when lineman are running up field and going away from playing sound technique. Yet when you watch the fits in the run game and how this group is taking on blocks, there is a lot of get better at.

Watching Salamo Fiso’s game tape I see him struggling to get off blocks and far too often giving up his pads in the run game. He doesn’t seem to be able to bend to well at the waste and this causes him to really get widened out when fitting his gap. I’d love to see him work on a big lock out and some escape moves once he is engaged with the blocker. I don’t see enough of that out there from the defense.

Laiu Moeakiola did a sound job when he was out there but it’s clear his shoulder is keeping him from playing the way he wants to. D.J. Calhoun had a very productive night that was probably his best game yet. The exciting early sack, nine tackles - 2.5 TFLs and one pass breakup showed him leading this position group. Exciting to say the least watching a freshman play this hard. The one thing we want to see this group improve on is the tackling. Fiso on the goal doesn’t even try to keep Kessler out; Christian Sam missed several tackles out in space. All fundamentals this group needs to keep working - feet and hips when breaking down on ball carriers.

Secondary

Grade: B+

I really thought this group played well on Saturday and clearly the production and some of the game saving tackles that took place were because of the efforts given from the secondary.

Jordan Simone recorded 20 tackles (12 solo) and a TFL leading the team and really coming up huge in both the pass and run game. Between Simone, Damarious Randall and Lloyd Carrington you see 43 tackles of the 103 tackles accounted for. Those are some big numbers and late in the game when ASU needed those tackles Randall and Simone were there to make those plays.

The ASU defense was really blitzing and overloading up front and these plays put this position group in a lot of one on one situations which they stepped up and answered. I thought the pass coverage was fairly solid but there were several dropped balls by USC that showed receivers pretty wide open. Tough when the run game is rolling up front and trying to defend both yet I thought this group played tough as nails and really held the defense together.

Special Team Grades

Kickoff Team: B-

Three Returns for 75 yards and a long of 32. Better night covering kickoffs than we have seen so far and I thought that we did a fair job squeezing the ball carriers and avoiding blocks.

Kickoff Return Team: A

Probably the best game we have seen from the kickoff return team in the last couple of seasons with the longest special teams plays in 2014 of 47 yards. I liked watching Kyle Middlebrooks back returning kicks. He has good vision and can find the lanes out there.

Punt Team: C

Mixed bag of goods. Matt Haack punted six times for an average of 40 yards, long of 51 and had two deep inside the USC territory. Mike Bercovici also added a beautiful kick that was pinned deep. The flip side to this was the return for a touchdown that showed some horrible efforts. It looked like no one was ready for Nelson Agholor to run that right back down the ASU sideline.

Punt Return Team: C

ASU was playing a safe punt return look more often than not this game as USC attempted several pooch kicks with Kessler punting. The only knock on this group was Damarious Randall attempting to pull in the ball inside the 10 yard line which clearly showed the ball was going to roll into the end zone. ASU had to start this drive backed up far too close to their own goal line.

Field Goal Team: A

Alex Garoutte stepped up and took advantage of Zane Gonzalez being out and went 1 for 1 on his attempts. Great job by Alex stepping in and putting it between the uprights.

Team Grades

Offense: B

Defense: C

Special Teams: B

Offensive MVP: Co Winners - Mike Bercovici & Jaelen Strong Defensive MVP: Jordan Simone What an exciting night to be a Sun Devil. What looked like another painful loss turned into a comeback win that will go down as one of the biggest ASU's victories in recent memory. Great way to build momentum heading into a bye week and lots to improve on going forward as ASU sees their next opponent Stanford on October 18th in Sun Devil Stadium.

I urge all the home town Sun Devils to be there and be loud. Our team will need the stadium rocking and I can’t wait. I’ll be there screaming my head off on my 30th birthday. See you here!

#UnfinishedBusiness

-KC50

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 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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