Sun Devils put on ice by Aggies

Arizona State's offense was cold throughout much of its season opening 38-17 loss to Texas A&M in Houston on Saturday.

Houston -- A copious amount of attention leading up to Saturday's AdvoCare Texas Kickoff focused on the alternate "Desert Ice" jerseys Arizona State would wear against Texas A&M.

During the game itself, ASU's offense was largely ice cold.

It wasn't a case of frostbite that had the Sun Devils immobilized, though the way the Aggies defensive ends played it made it look as though ASU's new starting offensive tackles were frozen stiff.

ASU senior quarterback Mike Bercovici was sacked nine times -- four by defensive end Daeshon Hall and two by defensive end Myles Garrett -- and hurried five additional times in Texas A&M's resounding 38-17 win in the season opener for both teams.

"I thought we were just letting them tee off," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "I mean, you’ve got to vary your (snap) count. I mean, you know, Myles was just, I mean he was across the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped. He was getting off the ball better than we were on offense. Obviously we did a poor job of handling that."

Entering the game ASU was ranked No. 15 nationally and the Aggies were unranked. The Sun Devils were a trendy sleeper pick nationally as a College Football Playoff contender and Graham repeatedly said it was his best team in his four seasons in Tempe.

They didn't look like it Saturday, not by a longshot.

Some of the problems were familiar. The overriding theme of poor special teams play in the Graham-era has officially continued into 2015, even after he hired a new coordinator, Shawn Slocum, in the off-season. ASU gave up a 79 yard punt return for a touchdown to Arizona-native Christian Kirk -- a true freshman wide receiver -- early in the second quarter. ASU redshirt freshman safety Coltin Gerhart also roughed the Aggies' punter; ASU had a running into the punter penalty; nearly had several of junior Matt Haack's punts blocked; and did a poor job blocking on its kickoff coverage.

"Offense did what we needed it to do, and late in the game our defense stayed solid the whole night and our special teams were outstanding—the return, punt return for a touchdown, excellent coverage on kickoff cover," Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said. "I don't know how many times we tackled inside the 20, and punt coverage. And it was a field position game. I thought our special teams were able to maintain our field position and maybe put Arizona State in some bad spots while we were struggling offensively."

Some of the problems were new. ASU had to replace multi-year starters Jami Douglas and Tyler Sulka at the tackle positions and it failed in that regard Saturday. Junior left tackle Evan Goodman and senior right tackle William McGehee were dominated by what might be the best tandem of pass rushers the Sun Devils will see all season.

"I mean, definitely got to give a lot of credit for their pass rush," Bercovici conceded. "They did a good job. We were prepared for it. We knew the type of opponent we were going against. Their [defensive] line did a good job getting off on the ball."

Bercovici completed 25 of 41 attempts but threw for just 199 yards and one touchdown, a four-yard strike to junior tight end Kody Kohl. A vast majority of the time, Bercovici didn't have time to try to find a wide receiver down the field, and with ASU operating in a lot of third and medium and third and long situations, it was only able convert a total of 5 of 18 on third down in the game.

Bercovici also had a difficult time holding onto the football. He fumbled four times, all of which came directly due to presser in the pocket. Only one of the fumbles resulted in a turnover, though it came immediately after ASU senior cornerback Kweishi Brown picked off Aggies sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen early in the third quarter.

ASU started on the Aggies 29 yard line after the Brown interception, but only had the ball for nine seconds, as Hall got one of his four sacks pressuring off the edge and Bercovici gave the ball up. At the time, ASU trailed 14-7 and was already in scoring territory.

As bad as the Sun Devils played on offense and special teams, they were still very much in the game deep into the fourth quarter. ASU cut its deficit to 17-14 on a Bercovici 19-yard run in the third quarter that capped a 75-yard, 13 play drive, only to see Allen come back into the game after yielding to freshman Kyler Murray at quarterback earlier on and lead the Aggies on a nine play, 84-yard touchdown drive that culminated with an Allen 12 yard run.

The Sun Devils again responded with a 23 yard Zane Gonzalez field goal with 4:16 left in the game following a 13-play, 70-yard drive. It was the best back-to-back drives of the game for the Sun Devils and gave a glimmer of hope.

That was snuffed out quickly though, as ASU's defense finally showed some cracks late, with Kirk taking a screen pass 66 yards for a game clinching touchdown with 3:45 left.

"The bubble (screen) was just pretty frustrating because we had obviously run that pressure a million times, and our safety is supposed to be down to six yards and we just made a mistake and obviously they capitalized on it," Graham said.

"Obviously we are very disappointed. Special teams really killed us, and I’m really proud of our guy’s character. I think there were four minutes left in the game and it was 24-17, thought we were going to win the football game. We made some real critical mistakes.

"As good as we played defensively, that was tough, but really, lots of positives from our guys."

Through three quarters, Texas A&M had just 263 yards on 63 plays from scrimmage, a meager 4.2 yard-per-play average. Junior SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso played extremely well, with eight tackles including a fourth down stop, and sophomore WILL Christian Sam showed up to the tune of 6.5 tackles in his first start.

In the secondary, ASU held up extremely through through three-plus quarters of action. Even while forced to blitz heavily due to an inability to get to the quarterback with four pass rushers -- ASU had just one sack by a defensive lineman -- the Sun Devils' defensive backs had very few breakdowns in coverage or physical losses to a very talented Texas A&M receiving corps. Simone and Brown each had an interception, senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington also played well and sophomore Armand Perry, in his first career start, also held up reasonably in coverage and had a team-high 8.5 tackles.

But as soon as ASU's offense started to get some momentum -- due in part to running the ball with sophomore Demario Richard between the tackles more as opposed to a lot of the misdirection and perimeter-oriented runs earlier in the game -- its defense had a couple bad series and the game got away late.

Earlier, the Sun Devils really appeared to miss sophomore running back Kalen Ballage, who was, according to ASU media relations, sent home from Houston due to illness. A lot of the carries that went to junior De'Chavon Hayes would have likely instead gone to Ballage. Hayes was largely ineffective in the return game and in the backfield, where he had six yards rushing on seven attempts, and as a receiver, with six catches for 13 yards.

Special teams miscues and an offensive line that was expected to buoy the Sun Devils but instead ripped their hull open like an iceberg were the real story though. ASU is taking on water now and has to start bailing it out and making repairs before it gets to conference play.


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