In a 38-17 loss to the Texas A&M Aggies at NRG Stadium in Houston, head coach Todd Graham felt the Sun Devils were thoroughly outplayed in two of the three phases of game. Graham admitted feeling caught off guard by some of what he witnessed Saturday, especially considering many of ASU’s mistakes were uncharacteristic of the type of program he has tried to build.
“I was a bit surprised at some of the undisciplined play that we had,” Graham said. “Some of the things that we didn't adjust very well either to what they were doing. Those are some things that we can learn and we can be better from. But there are a lot of things in that game. I mean, to play that bad in two of the three phases and to be 24-17 right down the stretch is a one-score game...”
The lack of discipline and spike in penalties aren’t emblematic of the way Graham’s ASU teams have played the last three years, but the special teams miscues that have agonized the Sun Devils over the past few seasons were a factor once again.
Like a doctor who continues to search for a new and improved medication, Graham sought to heal the damage ASU’s special teams units have caused recently with the hire of new special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum this offseason.
Graham has raved about Slocum’s schemes and coaching ability in recent weeks, but admitted many of the critical errors ASU committed on kickoff returns and punts against Texas A&M were a result of coaching mistakes.
“If you asked my opinion, that is as poorly as we've played on special teams and that's unacceptable,” Graham said. “A lot of that is guys just missed assignments and things like that, and there are some more -- probably what we're doing is a little bit more complex than what we've done in the past, and it's about us teaching it.”
Still, even with a running into the kicker and a roughing the kicker penalty, Graham remains upbeat about the potential of the special teams units.
At Monday’s press conference, Graham cited the play of redshirt junior punt returner De’Chavon Hayes and junior kicker Zane Gonzalez as positives ASU could look to build on moving forward.
“Lots of positives,” Graham said. “They get the ball on our 5-yard line, we go three-and-out there. We rough the punter, we go turnover on downs after that. Got three takeaways, really, with the turnover on downs, four takeaways defensively. Kickoff cover was impressive. Zane Gonzalez was really impressive.”
The Point of Attack
So much of Saturday’s result hinged on the play of both teams’ offensive and defensive lines, and ASU’s defensive front felt confident about its ability to dominate at the point of attack from the outset.
The Sun Devils notched 8.0 tackles for loss including 3.0 sacks against the Aggies, and were anchored on the interior up front by the likes of junior defensive tackle Viliami Latu and redshirt senior defensive tackle Demetrius Cherry.
Early in the game, Graham said the defensive line came to him on the sidelines and asked him to stop calling for stunts, because the linemen felt they didn’t need movement to dominate Texas A&M’s offensive front.
“Well, it's really easy to fit the run when you're just dominating the line of scrimmage,” Graham said. “Ami Latu, wow, (sophomore tackle) Tashon Smallwood, Demetrius Cherry, (freshman end) JoJo Wicker, wow. He had a couple of critical errors that hurt us on some stunts, but, man, that kid. (Junior end Edmond) Boateng played his best game. They totally dominated the line of scrimmage. As a matter of fact, they told us, 'Coach, quit slanting and let us play.' It was (also) totally dominated out on the perimeter.”
The play of ASU’s defensive line allowed its linebackers to shine in run support, and redshirt junior SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso and sophomore WILL linebacker Christian Sam put together two of the best individual performances of any Sun Devils as a result. Fiso finished with eight tackles, while the Texas native Sam set a career-high with 6.5 tackles.
“I thought Salamo (Fiso), like you're saying, and I thought Christian (Sam) played really well,” Graham said. “Salamo is so smart. He runs the defense and makes most of the calls. It was -- I wasn't really, throughout the whole game, I was really pretty calm because after the first series the defensive line said, Hey, Coach, we can dominate the line of scrimmage.”
Though ASU ultimately surrendered 38 points -- seven on special teams, three after a turnover in the red zone and another seven late after a turnover on downs in their own territory -- the defense’s run fits and gap integrity gave the Sun Devils something to build off moving forward.
Furthermore, Graham believed the pass defense was also sharp, and cited redshirt senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington and senior cornerback Kweishi Brown as the team’s top two scoring players when the coaching staff broke down Saturday’s game film.
Even with the positive takeaways Graham found, he was still discouraged by the overall amount of missed assignments. In particular, Aggie freshman wide receiver Christian Kirk’s 66-yard touchdown reception on a bubble screen play in the fourth quarter resulted from a defensive breakdowns Graham viewed as unacceptable, an alignment error by sophomore field safety Armand Perry.
“Obviously they wound up hurting us in a slot on a bubble,” Graham said. “I mean, that's amazing. We gave up a 66-yard touchdown on a bubble, which I don't think that's been a long time since that's happened to us.”
Aside from the physical and mental breakdowns ASU’s players made, Graham also expressed disappointment in the offensive approach during Saturday’s loss. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell routinely attacked the perimeter of Texas A&M’s defense with outside running plays and perimeter screen passes, and the Aggies had success shutting down ASU’s rushing game because of the play of their talented defensive ends.
Sophomore Myles Garrett and junior Daeshon Hall terrorized ASU’s offensive tackles en route to combining for 6.0 sacks, but their presence and ability to jump the Sun Devils’ snap count also freed up Aggie linebackers to flow up in run support. ASU ended up averaging just 2.2 yards per rush, and Hayes, who took most of his touches toward the perimeter, finished with just six yards on seven carries.
“But in the run game, they were -- their ends were very, very good,” Graham said. “But when we ran the ball and inside we made yards. We just did too much perimeter stuff.”
The Texas A&M defense looked a step faster than ASU on the outside during Saturday’s game, and much of that had to do with the Sun Devils’ failure to keep the Aggie defense guessing on the snap count.
Texas A&M had no problem beating ASU off the football, and redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici said the offense needs to work on its tempo and alignments if it hopes to correct the issue in the coming weeks. Bercovici indicated the play clock became a factor far too often for ASU, and that allowed Garrett and Hall to predict the Sun Devils’ cadence.
“Yeah, I think one of the big emphasis in the game or one of the big factors of the game that hurt us was playing against the play clock,” Bercovici said. “There are a couple times where we were sitting there with five seconds left on the clock, and everybody on the field and even in stands, they know we're snapping the ball. I think that hurt us a little bit.”
The 17 points ASU mustered were the fewest scored by a Norvell offense during his tenure in Tempe, and Graham said Saturday’s game was the rare occasion in which the Sun Devils were dominated on the offensive side of the ball. In order to rectify that, Graham said he would like to see more of a commitment to an interior, power running game ASU failed to display against Texas A&M.
Graham didn't disclose the nature of the illness -- which SunDevilSource first reported to be momo late Sunday -- which caused ASU sophomore running back Kalen Ballage to be sent home from Houston a day ahead of the Saturday's game game against the Aggies, but did provide additional details.
Ballage objected to leaving after details of his illness were discovered at 11 a.m. Friday but was put on a plane at 2 p.m. and sent back to Tempe.
Graham said Ballage isn't out for the season and could return after "one or two weeks" on the sidelines. It appears ASU is hopeful Ballage will be back for the Sun Devils' Sept. 26 conference opener against USC.
Had the Sun Devils known earlier they wouldn't have had Ballage, they may have altered their game plan and personnel decisions, including playing senior D.J. Foster more in the backfield, according to Graham.
ASU redshirt freshman Devil backer Ismael Murphy-Richardson didn't play against the Aggies Saturday because he was suspended for the game, Graham said Monday.
Murphy-Richardson practiced with the first-team at times during ASU's spring ball and even early in pre-season came was getting some reps in the two-deep. But when the Sun Devils started scout team work, Murphy-Richardson was a surprise player not part of the Texas A&M game planning.
Now it appears his previously undisclosed suspension was the reason. Moving forward, Murphy-Richardson may be able to contend for second-team reps behind senior starter Antonio Longino at the position, possibly challenging sophomore A.J. Latu.
On the heels of a last second 20-19 upset-victory over the Montana Grizzlies, the Cal Poly Mustangs will come to Tempe brimming with confidence. The Mustangs are the first of two nonconference opponents ASU will see this season that operates under a triple-option offense, a traditionally run-heavy scheme built on deception.
Mustang senior quarterback Chris Brown completed just four passes against Montana on Saturday, but was one of a pair of 100-yard rushers for Cal Poly, which finished Saturday’s game with 330 rushing yards.
After finishing 7-5 a season ago, the Mustangs returned 16 starters this year including a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Brown and junior slotback Kobi Garcia from an offense that has led the FCS in rushing in each of the past two years.
While ASU figures to be a heavy favorite on Saturday, the Mustangs should challenge the Sun Devils because their offense eats up clock and forces defenses to maintain discipline.
Graham didn’t mention the Mustangs at Monday’s press conference, but instead focused on how his teams have typically responded from early-season setbacks.
“That is pretty standard throughout every year I've coached,” Graham said. “In our first year here we go to Missouri and lose a game we should have won, and our guys responded. The second year we just get embarrassed at Stanford. Guys responded pretty good. Last year was just an absolute debacle at UCLA here and we responded pretty well.”
Cal Poly poses rare threats as a veteran, upset-minded FCS team armed with a strong offensive identity, but Graham believes Saturday’s game can serve as a rallying point for ASU to get back on track.
Even with a season-opening loss against Texas A&M, Graham knows all of ASU’s season goals remain the same, and Saturday’s contest gives the Sun Devils another opportunity to renew their pursuit.