Cal Poly Preview: Theme or Anomaly

Will Arizona State's struggles and successes from last week's season opener turn into trends or prove to be anomalous? We take a closer look in this Cal Poly game preview.

1. Lack of protection for Mike Bercovici. Texas A&M was really a perfect storm of an opponent for Arizona State in its opening game. It was ostensibly a hostile road game for the Sun Devils, which Todd Graham called the loudest environment for a game in his tenure at the school. It was in a domed stadium, so it was louder than an open air venue. The Aggies had a new defensive coordinator which made preparation tougher, and they also had what's probably going to be the best tandem of defensive ends ASU will play this season. It may even wind up as the best pair of ends in the country, as both are first-round NFL type prospects. Then there's the fact ASU was tipping off the snaps to some degree, between senior quarterback Mike Bercovici and senior center Nick Kelly. The result was nine sacks and 14 tackles for a loss. The Sun Devils may make a switch at left tackle, with redshirt freshman Sam Jones potentially getting bumped up to the first-team, especially with junior Evan Goodman a little banged up after the game according to Graham. This week, ASU will be playing at home against a lesser opponent. It should do much better at protecting Bercovici and holding up along the offensive front. Anomaly.

2. Absense of big play capability. It's really hard to make plays down the field in the passing game when your quarterback severely pressured with consistency, and especially against a team like Texas A&M. Why? The Aggies play press man coverage with outside leverage, which is designed to make it take more time for opposing receivers to get into their routes, and also take away go and fade routes. That's time Bercovici didn't have. Sure, ASU's wide receivers are deserved under scrutiny, but a lot of times Bercovici was flushed or sacked even before a receiver was supposed to be coming open based on the play concepts. ASU also made it tougher on itself in this regard because it didn't protect enough with seven players, which is what helps provide quarterbacks with the time to get the ball down the field, but also leads to just three receiving options and tighter throwing windows unless someone can get behind the defense. Cal Poly likes to blitz but is unlikely to pressure Bercovici nearly as much, so ASU should have more of a big play capability. If not, this will likely be a full season issue. Anomaly.

3. Owning the line of scrimmage defensively. ASU's defensive front clearly won the point of attack against the Aggies last week, with Texas A&M averaging just 4.2 yards per play through the first three quarters and its top running back averaging just 3.3 yards per carry through the whole game. ASU's heavier and stronger up front this year than last year, with Demetrius Cherry, Viliami Latu and Tashon Smallwood all a year more mature, and each played very well. A sure emblem of ASU's dominance of the line of scrimmage was how junior SAM Salamo Fiso and sophomore WILL Christian Sam were free to make a lot of tackles without having to get off blocks because the Aggies' offensive linemen weren't reaching the second level to disrupt them hardly at all. The Cal Poly triple option will likely include a lot of cut blocks so it'll be tough to maul offensive linemen at the point of attack, but it's tough to imagine there'll be a lot of inside run lanes in this game. Theme.

4. Special Teams Struggles. What we observed in last week's ASU season opener was clearly a special teams overhaul in progress. What remains to be seen is how early it is in that process and how successful it'll ultimately be. There were some good signs for the Sun Devils. Junior kicker Zane Gonzalez was a big improvement from what ASU's had on kickoffs in recent years and it's an indication he probably should have been on the unit before. He was getting the ball deep into the end zone, but it was in a dome so we'll see if he can continue that in an open air stadium. He likely will, especially in Tempe, where the hot air makes the ball fly farther. ASU's punt returns were also better, with junior De'Chavon Hayes doubling ASU's last season return average, and making the first player down the field miss on several occasions. There were also fewer players swarming around Hayes on the catch. Other areas were disastrous though, with punt being a mixed bag as ASU also had a roughing the punter and running into the punter. With its own punt game, junior Matt Haack didn't perform nearly as well as he has in practices. There were protection issues up front, with several of Haack's punts nearly blocked, and ASU also had a delay of game. And on kickoff returns ASU wasn't able to do much and had some bad blocking ahead of Hayes, who was filling in for Kalen Ballage. It's to be determined whether ASU's special teams will continue to lag behind or not.

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