Effort and execution are two things Arizona State has not had much of a problem with in recent years. Saturday versus an FCS program, you would think ASU would not have to give much effort to win, but in the end it needed to make big plays late to escape with a 35-21 victory over Cal Poly.
Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell was upstairs in the coaches’ booth for the first time at ASU. The change in perspective did not lead to a more cohesive offensive attack. While the team ran more than it passed in the first half (25 rushes to 17 passes), ASU seemed to not want to line up and run the ball at Cal Poly in short yardage situations. On a third and three in the first quarter, ASU attempted a screen pass to junior Tim White that was not completed and then punted despite being in Cal Poly territory. This is after gaining 35 yards on the ground on the previous four plays. You can understand, particularly after how the game ended, ASU wanting to get White involved but a run there probably would have picked up the first down and if not, made it an easier decision to go on fourth down.
ASU started the game relatively well. After the first quarter it held an eight to two first down made advantage. It had outgained Cal Poly 144 yards to 50. Yet it only led 7-0. Part of that was how Cal Poly runs a lot of clock with how it keeps the ball almost exclusively on the ground.
ASU came out with an emphasis to run the football. Sophomore Demario Richard rushed 10 times for 43 in the first. The Sun Devils rushed 14 times to five passing attempts. Losing junior De'Chavon Hayes to injury early in game presumably caused ASU to use senior D.J. Foster at running back more than it had probably planned in the game. Foster, who went off the field awkwardly early seemed a little off the rest game but played well. He had more pop in his legs in the first quarter before seemingly getting banged up a little.
Foster finished the game with 12 carries for 76 yards and was on the field when ASU got the ball back with just over four minutes to go and a seven-point lead. He also had six receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown. Richard had a good game. He ran well despite not getting an abundance of help from his offensive line, finishing with 123 yards on 25 carries.
The second quarter was particularly rough for ASU. Cal Poly matched ASU in points, each team scoring 14, with seven first downs made and the total yardage was only a 138 to 125 advantage for ASU. The key play of the second quarter came when ASU seemed to have a good drive, going up 21-7. Junior tight end Kody Kohl fumbled the ball after he had picked up 14 yards and a first down on a third and two. The turnover set up Cal Poly at ASU’s 46 and 10 plays later the Mustangs scored to make it 21-14. At that point everything got really tight for ASU.
Cal Poly, with momentum, came out to start the third quarter with an eight play 75 yard scoring drive to tie the game at 21-21.
On two of its next three drives, ASU twice moved the ball inside the Cal Poly 10 yard line and came away with zero points. On the first possession, ASU had the ball, first and goal at the 1-yard line and came away empty after quarterback Mike Bercovici threw an inexplicable interception on fourth down. Zane Gonzalez missed a 28 yard field goal on ASU other drive inside the 10.
Bercovici had an odd performance. He had shown great ability to makes his reads all through fall camp. For most of this game he seemed to focus on only one side of the field from snap. On his fourth down interception it was obvious wide receiver Devin Lucien did not beat his man but even with time, Bercovici decided to force the ball instead of looking at another receiver or trying to make a play with his feet. Bercovici still finished with a respectable stat line of 23 completions on 35 attempts for 283 yards with three scores and the one interception.
Bercovici threw two fourth quarter scores, one came on a great catch by a well covered Kody Kohl in the end zone. The second came to White to push the lead to 35-21.
The ASU offensive line did not have an especially good game. The unit again struggled to make blocks on the perimeter. Many of the yards gained by Richard were because of his ability to makes cuts in traffic. Senior right tackle Billy McGehee came out of the game early and freshman Sam Jones, who started at left tackle, slid over to the right side. Junior Evan Goodman, who was expected to not play much, played the remainder of the game at left tackle.
Jones played well and he brings some much needed athleticism to the unit, so it will be interesting to see if he remains with the starting unit and if so, where he lines up.
ASU’s lack of playmakers at receiver really stood out in this game. Lucien lead the team with seven receptions for 79 yards but failed on multiple attempts to get open in the red zone. Foster's usage at running back in this game did not help with ASU's athleticism at receiver, with Fred Gammage having a drop in his place.
Tim White made back to back impact plays on the last scoring drive which sealed the game. He had a 19 yard reception fouled up by a huge 59 yard run on a jet sweep. His open field ability is something ASU will need to find a way to incorporate more into the offense as the season moves on. ASU longest pass play of the year is still 33 yards. If Foster is needed to spend more time in the backfield, White could enable that if he's able to step into a larger role at the 2-receiver position as he gets closer to full strength coming off a broken bone in his hand.
Defensively, ASU did not seem to be ready physically or mentally for Cal Poly’s triple option attack. It was continually beaten on dive plays. The first quarter seemed to go fine. Cal Poly had 16 carries for 50 yards. But the second quarter the Mustangs got the ball rolling downhill and it changed the feel of the game.
One thing that stood out schematically was ASU lining up its two interior linemen over the offensive guards and not having its typical 1-technique tackle aligned on the center's shoulder. Cal Poly seemed to attack the middle successfully in this game but ASU stayed with that approach perhaps in part because of a concern about being exposed laterally.
The defense and the game itself for ASU was saved by big plays made by junior Laiu Moeakiola and Jordan Simone the fourth quarter. Moeakiola had a key tackle-for-loss when it was tied game that backed up Cal Poly and ended its drive. ASU took the lead on its next possession.
Simone and Moeakiola each had tackles-for-loss to end each of Cal Poly’s last two possessions. Simone finished with 12 tackles and three tackles-for-loss. Moeakiola had 11 tackles and three tackles for loss.
Sophomore Ami Latu was lost to injury in the first half and senior Demetrius Cherry played almost the entire game afterwards. Sophomore Tashon Smallwood played a good game but statistically made little impact with just three tackles.
Devil backer Antonio Longino had a solid game on the stat sheet with 11 tackles and two tackles-for-loss. ASU lost outside contain a few too many times in this game to say he played well, with many of his tackles coming from backside crashes.
Sophomore Christian Sam had another impressive game with 11 tackles and two tackles-for-loss. He along with junior Salamo Fiso at times were caught out of position but it was challenging because Cal Poly's offensive guards were getting to the linebacker level so they were trying to get to the play before the block and that opened some dive opportunities even more when they weren't successful.
ASU’s cornerbacks were rarely tested as Cal Poly was only four for eight on passing plays in the game. Sophomore field safety Armand Perry was lost in the second half with an apparent left ankle injury.
It was another mediocre game for ASU’s special teams. Losing De'Chavon Hayes on punt returns forced former walk-on Jacom Brimhall on as a replacement and he struggled to field punts, nearly losing two, one of which he should have fair caught. Tim White looked much better when he went in late and fair caught a punt in traffic at ASU’s 14-yard line.
As mentioned earlier, Gonzalez missed his only a field goal attempt but he was good on kickoffs getting five touchbacks on six kickoffs.
Freshman defensive back Kareem Orr was penalized twice on punt coverage; one for interfering with a the catch and he picked up a 15 yard personal foul on another.
Hayes, before he went out, was productive on kick returns with a 57 yard return and a 20 yard return on two attempts. Devin Lucien returned a kickoff 39 yards at the end of the first half as well.
Junior punter Matt Haack was solid in limited duty, punting two times for a 42.5 average and placing one inside the 20-yard line. Bercovici got his first punting experience of the season, placing a 38 yard punt inside the 20.
The coverage teams were relatively untested because of the strong kickoff performance by Gonzalez and two of ASU’s three punts not being returnable.
In the end, ASU’s upperclassmen, Simone, Moeakiola and Bercovici made plays late in the game to earn the win for the Sun Devils but it was an underwhelming effort overall and several players left the game with injury.
Whether it was a post big game hangover or just a lack of urgency, Arizona State did not play well and struggled to beat a FCS program. Something that a team with playoff aspirations should not do.
Where ASU goes for here is hard to say. It will face another triple option team in New Mexico next week. Its game they will be heavily favored in and will need to use to build some momentum before it faces off against USC and UCLA is consecutive weeks. Lackluster efforts versus the Trojans and Bruins will more likely than not lead to losses and a lost season.