Instant Analysis: ASU stumbles vs Texas A&M

Arizona State seriously struggled in two phases out of three in its season opening 38-17 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday.

Houston -- If you watched the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff, it goes without saying Arizona State did not play well overall Saturday in its 38-17 loss to Texas A&M. A lot of different perceived deficiencies will grab the attention of fans but for the most part this game was lost at the line of scrimmage. In particular, ASU’s offensive line’s inability to establish the run or create a pocket and allow Mike Bercovici time to make plays downfield.

ASU’s lack of production was a mix of its play-calling and the performance of its offensive line, in particular the two new starting tackles, junior Evan Goodman and senior Billy McGehee. ASU for most of the first half was trying to get to the outside with jet sweeps, misdirection runs, and quick passes. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell seemed to play call away from his offense's perceived strength, inside running behind senior returning starting offensive linemen Christian Westerman, Nick Kelly and Vi Teofilo. Texas A&M speed and athleticism on defense was able to contain ASU on the outside.

For most of the game ASU struggled to get a rhythm going on offense. That was mainly due to its performance on first down plays. In the first half, ASU had 12 first down plays and on only two of those plays did it gain more than five yards. Seven times ASU was put into second and 7 yards or longer situations. Things got better for ASU on first down in the second half, ASU had seven plays gaining more than five yards. Though three of those plays came after Texas A&M had a 21 point lead. In the first half ASU didn't try to establish a downhill inside run game and the result and lost an opportunity. On the first good drive of the game that it had, the two first down plays were successful runs in the box, not a coincidence.

The lack of an established running game allowed Texas A&M’s new defensive coordinator John Chavis, to unleash his talented pass rushers on ASU’s new starting offensive tackles. Goodman and McGehee really struggled. We talked about how ASU’s lack of top end speed rushers might have masked Goodman and McGehee’s ability to handle the pass rush during camp. That appeared to be the case against Texas A&M as ASU surrendered nine sacks and five quarterback hurries, with six combined sacks by Texas A&M ends Daeshon Hall and Myles Garrett. The only good news for ASU’s tackles is that they probably will not face a group of edge rushers as talented as the Aggies showed Saturday.

Bercovici did not seem as flustered as you might expect from a quarterback under pressure for most of the game. He finished completing 25 of 41 passes, but for only 199 yards. He had a touchdown pass to Kody Kohl, which only came after ASU's defense generated a turnover and got him the ball on the Aggies' four yard line to start, and threw zero interceptions. If you only knew Bercovici would have no interceptions before the game, you would assume ASU would win the game. However, when you are five of 18 on third down, you will not win many games. Bercovici did hold the ball a bit too much at times, failed to get rid of it, and fumbled a few times. ASU had five total fumbles but only lost two. You can't put the ball on the ground that many times.

In the second half, ASU went with more power runs. We saw Bercovici take multiple snaps under center in second half and ASU played more two-tight end formations to run behind. ASU was effective at times, Demario Richard ran 16 times for 73 yards. ASU could have used Kalen Ballage who missed the game due to what ASU termed an illness. The secondary rush options, D.J. Foster and De'Chavon Hayes combined for 10 carries for 19 yards. Bercovici is not great in read-option situations but did makes plays with his legs, including a 19-yard touchdown run in the 3rd quarter that made the score 17-14. The lack of a strong read-option component, as ASU had in the past, was a clear limitation in this game given ASU's broader offensive struggles.

With ASU’s inability to establish the run or protect Bercovici, it is hard to judge the performance of the wide receivers in the game. Foster and Hayes lead the team with six receptions each but only combined for 61 yards total. Devin Lucien had two receptions for 25 yards. ASU rarely had opportunity to set up plays to stretch the field.

ASU had several down years recruiting offensive linemen during the end of Dennis Erickson’s run and the beginning of Todd Graham’s time. ASU lack of top talent at tackle was a weakness exploited tonight.

Defense

You could argue that ASU’s defense played well enough to win but it did not play well enough to win the game on its own. It defended the run well but gave up some big plays to Aggies' freshman quarterback Kyler Murray who rushed six times for 69 yards when he came into the game for a few years to give Texas A&M's offense a chance of pace. ASU missed tackles late and gave Texas A&M several easy scores and that was too much for a lackluster offensive to overcome.

The defensive front played well overall but had chances to make more plays than it did. Sophomore tackle Tashon Smallwood was credited was seven tackles and made a lot of plays but his effort on Texas A&M’s first touchdown was less than exemplary. Junior tackle Viliami Latu played well with two tackles for loss and a sack. True freshman Joseph Wicker played well for the most part when he came into the game, backing up starter Edmond Boateng. Wicker lost contain badly once on one of Murray’s runs but he made plays and for his first game, his performance was impressive, especially when you factor in the level of the competition. Senior defensive tackle Demetrius Cherry only had two tackles but recovered a fumble and returned into to the four yard line, setting up ASU’s first score. Antonio Longino did not bring much production at Devil backer. He had no sacks or tackles-for-loss and only was credited with one quarterback hurry. The contrast between what Longino gave ASU and the Aggies' ends gave them was stark.

ASU's inside linebackers played very well. Sophomore Christian Sam was very productive in his first start. He totaled 10 tackles, 1.5 for loss, a sack and had a forced fumble (recovered by Cherry). Junior Salamo Fiso had eight tackles and key tackle-for-loss on a fourth and 1 on ASU’s 18 yard line when it was still a three point game. Junior Spur Laiu Moeakiola had seven tackles, one and half tackles for loss and a sack.

Much of the attention going into the game was focused on sophomore field safety Armand Perry, who was making his first start at field safety. Perry lead the team in tackles and was not a liability in coverage downfield other than a couple reps earlier on in the game. Senior Bandit safety Jordan Simone was his usual steady productive self, finishing with seven tackles and an interception. Senior cornerbacks Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown were extremely solid. The unit was exposed by Kirk on his fourth quarter catch and run but not much else, and the secondary overall was put in a lot of Cover 0 situations due to how much ASU blitzed. The Aggies didn't get coverage busts or clearly beat ASU defensive backs down the field. That bodes extremely well for the team moving forward.

Special Teams

Special Teams were poor, which has been a consistent theme under Todd Graham. The 79-yard punt return for a touchdown by Christian Kirk was the big play of the first half for the Aggies. Later, redshirt freshman Coltin Gerhart flailed wildly on a failed attempt to bock a punt that had no chance and he roughed -- and injured -- the punter. Texas A&M did not score on that drive because it went for it on 4th down and ASU stopped it at its own 25 yard-line. ASU gave up 7 points on Special Teams but it could have been 10 or 14 points directly attributable to special teams miscues.

Matt Haack, while not always punting the ball well, had 10 punts and averaged 42 yards per attempt. He had four punts inside the 20 and two punts went over 50 yards. Several times ASU had breakdowns and punts were nearly blocked early and that contributed to some of the poor punts early including the one Kirk returned for a touchdown.

Zane Gonzalez connected on his only field goal attempt; he kicked off well and the Sun Devils covered kicks well. Gonzalez did a nice job getting the ball deeper on kickoffs than ASU did last season.

ASU did not have Kalen Ballage to return kickoffs, Gump Hayes has not been effective on kick returns, he ran three returns for a total of 21 yards and the blocking didn't help. On punts, Hayes was better, totaling four returns and average 18 yards per return.

While Graham has recruited very well overall on the defensive side of the ball, ASU has not been able to replace Carl Bradford’s production at Devil backer. While ASU pressured the quarterback relatively well in the game, it required wholesale blitzing and the Sun Devils only came away with three sacks. They also failed to contain Kyler Murray, who escaped the pocket more than once to run for first downs.

If you want to pin this loss on recruiting, you would have a strong case. Christian Kirk was one of several Texas A&M players who chose the Aggies over ASU. Kirk had a huge game, with 224 all-purpose yards and scored on a 79-yard punt return and a 66-yard catch and run.

Many fans and observers will say this is another example of ASU getting on the national stage and laying an egg. In this case that is true of this game but wins the last few seasons over Notre Dame, Wisconsin and USC in back to back seasons did happen. The program is as strong as it has ever been and nothing that happened tonight directly impacts its chances of winning the Pac-12 South or the conference overall. One thing Todd Graham’s teams have done on multiple occasions the last few seasons, is stumble early, Stanford in 2012, Notre Dame in 2013 and UCLA and 2014 and come out stronger because of it. There is no reason why ASU can not do the same this year.


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