Ten takeaways: Texas A&M

What do we think about Arizona State's 38-17 loss to Texas A&M Saturday in Houston? How bad was it really? What signs were very positive?

1. ASU was down by just seven points with under four minutes left in what was ostensibly a pick 'em road game in the SEC when ASU played poorly in two of three phases of the game, offense and special teams. In a glass half full way, that could be flipped around and seen as a very positive development, particularly how well Texas A&M played on special teams and defensively. As bad as the Sun Devils were on offense, they were still right in the game and ASU coach Todd Graham even said he thought they were going to win it prior to the long touchdown by Aggies' freshman Christian Kirk, which came due in large part to an alignment error by sophomore safety Armand Perry, who should have been at six yards depth and was instead at about nine and couldn't get to Kirk on the swing screen.

2. The two new starting offensive tackles for ASU, junior Evan Goodman and senior Billy McGehee, were not ready to play in this type of hostile and loud environment against elite players the caliber of Texas A&M's Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, who combined for six of the Aggies' nine sacks on the night. ASU senior center Nick Kelly appeared to be tipping off the snap with how he would lift his head and cock the ball before the snap, with Garrett in particular keying on the rhythm of Kelly cocking the ball. On some of his pass rushes, he was already past Goodman before there was a reaction. Kelly needs to vary his mechanics and/or senior quarterback Mike Bercovici has to change some of what he's doing pre-snap in order to prevent this from being an issue moving forward. It should have been something ASU saw and addressed even before the game, or certainly immediately after it became an issue. Goodman and McGehee struggled to be sure, but also were in a bad situation. ASU's lack of high end pass rushers didn't help them prepare. It was like going from taking batting practice at 70 miles per hour for a month and then being in the batter's box against a great pitcher throwing 95.

3. ASU was extremely anemic on first downs in the game and in particular in the first half, when there were too many wide runs and lateral throws. Excluding the 4-yard touchdown pass to junior Kohl Kohl from senior quarterback Mike Bercovici, ASU gained no more than five yards on 2 of 11 first-downs in the half. Demario Richard didn't have any carries over a 15 play span that made up about 13 minutes of the second half. We never got to see if the Sun Devils could successfully pound the ball up the middle on split zone or lead zone because there was no commitment to attempting to do so early on. It seemed as though ASU offensive coordinator Norvell was too frequently looked at misdirections, lateral runs and passes to the running backs before we really knew ASU's capability inside. This was especially important because Bercovici is less of a zone read threat and Texas A&M's interior linebackers were considered a non-strength going into the game, as well as the fact this was one way to attempt to negate the impact of Garrett and Hall -- running the ball right at and inside of them. ASU had more commitment to running the ball inside on second downs early in the game, but often did so after they were already behind schedule. One of those runs, Richard nearly broke but tripped.

4. The Sun Devils didn't max protect enough and/or play enough two tight end formations in order to check Garrett and Hall more at the line scrimmage; especially early on this was an issue. The Sun Devils were in two running back formations -- counting Hayes a back -- a majority of the time, with only Kohl on the field. They lacked the heft and commitment to blocking at the line of scrimmage with enough bodies to enable more big plays in the passing game. Ultimately, ASU was going to have to protect with six and seven players more often in order to given Bercovici any chance at having time to throw the ball down the field against defenses capable of pressuring this way.

5. Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis did a fantastic job preparing his team for ASU. He had an advantage over the Sun Devils in this regard, because ASU had to watch LSU film juxtaposed against the Aggies' personnel. We didn't expect Chavis to be able to get the Aggies functioning quite so soundly in the first game but his transition was mostly seamless. A lot of the receiver screens and quicker throws ASU made in the game weren't very successful because of two factors: Chavis had the Aggies very prepared and they were schemed in such a way that defenders were typically unblocked and able to make tackles in space, which they did pretty consistently; and ASU's perimeter blocking wasn't good enough to move and control the Aggies' defensive players. Chavis shrunk the field down on the Sun Devils significantly. There were almost no catches or even targets outside the numbers due to the Aggies' press man coverage success with a lot of outside leverage, and there was no verticality to ASU whatsoever due to a combination of issues: no time for Bercovici; lack of commitment to blocking with six and seven; receivers not being able to get open down the field.

6. After being an enormous focus all off-season, special teams play was largely a bust for the Sun Devils. They had a low, short punt returned for a touchdown by Kirk and also had several punts nearly blocked. They had a running into the kicker and a roughing of the kicker, a delay of game penalty on their punt team, and their kickoff return blocking was mediocre at best. They did have better punt return success than last year, and did a better job on kickoff coverage than last year, and also had deeper kickoffs than last year. But ASU still didn't do nearly as well as the Aggies on special teams, with Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin even remarking that it was a field possession game, especially early on, and their special teams won the phase.

7. ASU had five fumbles, four of which were by Bercovici. That can't happen, even when a quarterback is getting pressured as much as he was. Ball security is possibly the No. 1 predictor of success. Richard also fumbled on a third and very long carry inside the ASU red zone, which is totally unacceptable and resulted in a Texas A&M field goal.

8. Not having sophomore running back Kalen Ballage after he was sent home due to illness was a blow for several reasons. ASU had prepared all off-season based on the notion that Ballage would play and be the team's No. 2 running back, behind Richard. ASU needed a more physical profile at running back. De'Chavon Hayes had seven carries for a net six yards in the game. ASU also couldn't move junior D.J. Foster into the backfield because junior Tim White wasn't yet all the way ready to play with his injured hand and Foster probably doesn't make a difference in the backfield anyway after losing 15 pounds in the off-season and how the Aggies were stopping everything on the perimeter. The game called for more physicality and direct attack runs.

9. Overall, ASU's defense played great and easily good enough to win. Through the first three quarters the Aggies were averaging fewer than 4.2 yards per play. For as much as ASU blitzed and put its defensive backs in man coverage, which included a lot of Cover 0, its secondary held up extremely well. Senior Kweishi Brown was excellent at cornerback, Lloyd Carrington played very well and safety Jordan Simone also had a good game. They were getting off blocks on the perimeter, staying with their man assignments and there were almost no communication breakdowns or alignment errors outside of a couple by Perry, who is new and that's to be expected. Again, ASU played poorly on special teams and on offense and yet was right in the game with under four minutes left against a well coached team with a lot of talent in basically a road game..

10. There were some key first-year players on ASU's defense who really played well. Sophomore WILL Christian Sam got his first career start and excelled, with 10 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. The best thing about Sam's performance was his patience. He was gathering his feet and waiting for the play to declare itself and then attacking it. Many young inside linebackers are impatient and inefficient as a result. Sam has great athleticism and prototype size. He looks like a star player in the making. Perry had a couple lapses including the Kirk touchdown but overall played extremely well and looks to be a star player in the making as well. He managed space extremely well, was physical coming down to make plays in the box, tackled effectively, and re-directed as a coverage defensive back exceedingly well from an athletic standpoint. He also was doing a nice job communicating the defense. True freshman Joseph Wicker didn't start but flashed quite a bit in his reps, showing good read option discipline and crashing down to make a play after preventing the quarterback keeper. Not a lot of guys can do that and even fewer at 275 pounds. He only had three total tackles and no sacks, but what he showed was enormously encouraging for his future and ASU.


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