Ten takeaways: Cal Poly

Arizona State got banged up playing Cal Poly but may have some even bigger problems, particularly with its offense. Here's our full analysis with another triple option opponent on deck.

1. Arizona State's philosophical approach to defense doesn't mesh particularly well with playing against triple option offenses. Head coach Todd Graham's defense at ASU is based on attack principles up front. It's a one gap style of football, with a lot of slanting and defensive linemen taught to exploit the space between offensive linemen to destabilize the backfield, and a blitz-heavy approach which furthers that identity. When a triple option team is running fullback dive the action is often too quickly upon the line of scrimmage for defensive players on the interior to have already worked their way to where they're able to make plays in the backfield. Only the Will Sutton-type 3-technique tackles are likely to be able to split an inside gap quickly enough. What we saw Saturday was Cal Poly was using ASU's approach against itself. Defensive tackles were being cut and/or ushered in the direction of their momentum and the Mustangs were filling that void with offensive line blockers ahead of the fullback, with the linemen getting on the second level with some measure of success. Eventually ASU abandoned the slanting at the point of attack and changed its alignments some to try to counter what the Mustangs were doing but didn't have success with it because it's not what they're used to doing. It's hard to change in a one week setting for something like this when it shouldn't matter even if you don't.

2. Spur Laiu Moeakiola had a great game, perhaps the best from an ASU player and Cal Poly was relatively marginalized as far as triple option teams go from a quarterback and alert back standpoint on the perimeter. The Sun Devils had too much speed running to the football, even with junior SAM backer Salamo Fiso not being ideally suited for a sideline-to-sideline style of play. Sophomore WILL Christian Sam was able to pursue the quarterback with enough speed to shadow him enough that it was limiting and ASU's safeties came up and tackled well on the perimeter. The Sun Devils handled the speed of the triple option reasonably well, but a combination of its standard approach to football at the line of scrimmage and Fiso and to a lesser degree Calhoun getting frustrated with the linemen consistently reaching them and in reaction trying to beat the linemen to the block created enough space for interior dive runs, and Cal Poly broke a lot of arm tackles due to its fullback being relatively physical and being disciplined. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, ASU often didn't have a nose tackle in a zero/one technique, instead playing two linemen over the offensive guards. This is the type of offense that really lends itself to playing a two-gap style of football, and/or committing another defensive player into the box -- such as moving Jordan Simone up or replacing him altogether with another linemen, D.J. Calhoun -- or even a five man front in order to stop the dive. ASU didn't make significant adjustments.

3. Cut blocking at the line of scrimmage and this type of offense is also one players dislike going against and that can lack of enjoyment can present as frustration or even disinterest. ASU looked unemotional and even at timed disinterested on the sidelines of this game, which is attributable to playing a FCS opponent that runs the triple option. Those things can contribute to making a game like this closer than it should be, as can the fact that extended drives by triple option teams run a lot of clock because they're almost entirely run heavy. Fewer possessions often means less scoring and tighter-than-expected outcomes that are not necessarily indicative of the talent disparity between two teams. Physically, Cal Poly was one of the least imposing teams we've seen in recent years at Sun Devil Stadium on the field in pre-game warmups, as would be expected. But its style mitigates that disparity successfully.

4. Injuries are always a concern against cut blocking schemes, with junior defensive tackle Viliami Latu getting knocked out of the game up front. The Sun Devils have been using a three tackle rotation, which worked well in the opener as they had a lot of success against Texas A&M and won the line of scrimmage. But after Latu was knocked out, senior Demetrius Cherry and sophomore Tashon Smallwood played the rest of the game at defensive tackle for ASU without substitution. That's hard against any team but especially a cut blocking team that runs the ball right at the defense most every play. It would have been a good time for the Sun Devils to have seen what redshirt freshman Renell Wren, or someone else could have done on the inside.

5. ASU's other injuries really had nothing to do with the type of team it played but are nonetheless cause for concern. Sophomore safety Armand Perry was hurt on a non-contact movement in which he stepped wrong and twisted his left ankle awkwardly as he appeared to be breaking down to make a tackle attempt. Sophomore Chad Adams replaced him and handled the task relatively well but Perry is a very important player for the Sun Devils this season and he left the field in a walking boot with the help of crutches. Junior running back/slot receiver De'Chavon Hayes left the game with a hamstring strain, which additionally stressed an ASU offense that is already dealing with sophomore Kalen Ballage's absence due to mono. Senior right tackle William McGehee left the game with an apparently lower leg injury, forcing redshirt freshman Sam Jones to move from left tackle to right tackle and junior Evan Goodman to move back into the starting lineup on the left side. All of these players, including Latu, are important for ASU to have at the outset of conference play against USC in less than two weeks. McGehee is the only one who was practicing normally Monday.

6. There's a potentially serious mojo problem with ASU's offense right now. We've not seen the Sun Devils establish a comfortable rhythm and settle into an offensive identify through two games. A lack of a go-to weapon as a chain mover on third downs is part of what's ailing the team, as it settled into a comfort of having that player in each of the last three seasons, whether it was Jaelen Strong the last two years at wide receiver or the ability to throw to back and tight ends who could get open in space -- Chris Coyle, Mario Grice, D.J. Foster -- in the 2012 season. We haven't seen that this year and it was painfully apparent when ASU tried to forced the ball to Devin Lucien on three straight occasions in the red zone Saturday, which concluded with Mike Bercovici throwing an interception in which he didn't even look elsewhere before oddly forcing the ball.

7. ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is still trying to figure out his personnel and get into the flow of things, and in the interim has made some play-calling mistakes. He's a meticulous student and is no doubt prepared but may not be seeing the forest for the trees right now. A prime example was Norvell dialing up a screen pass on third and 3 at the Cal Poly 47 yard line. The pass fell incomplete and ASU punted on fourth down. I'm sure Norvell saw something on film that led him to believe on that down and distance a big play potential existed on that running back screen, but if ASU can't run inside on back-to-back plays and gain three yards and a first down and move the chains, it has much bigger problems. More of Norvell's play calling has to be in consideration of the bigger overall picture. It's interesting and noteworthy that Norvell was in the press box during the game for the first time at ASU Saturday. The presence of former ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly on the sidelines enables that to some degree, but the dynamic is curious because ASU's not had an offensive production problem under Norvell, save last season when Kelly was struggling post-injury. A question that's lingering is to what degree the unexpected loss of running backs coach Bo Graham -- who was in the press box during games -- has had on in-game decision making or planning.

8. One of the challenges Norvell has on doubt had is adjusting to some of the unexpected personnel limitations he's had to deal with. Sophomore running back Kalen Ballage being diagnosed with mono a day before Texas A&M no doubt changed the dynamic, especially because the two receivers who would normally back up senior D.J. Foster and perhaps enable him to move into the backfield for more of a role, juniors Tim White and Fred Gammage, were both coming off injuries or still limited. White (hand) didn't play against the Aggies but looked athletic in limited reps against the Mustangs. Gammage had a hamstring that limited him quite a bit in camp. So junior De'Chavon Hayes got more carries and played a bigger role in the backfield than was probably desirable. Then, Hayes got hurt with a hamstring strain against Cal Poly and with Ballage already unavailable, Foster took on more of a role in the backfield in support of sophomore starter Demario Richard. White showed his high potential late in the game, but Gammage came out hurt and so ASU remains thin. It's a tough thing to prepare and adjust for on the fly when you're already trying to figure out your offensive personnel.

9. There are some potentially limiting themes as it relates to ASU's run game capability starting to emerge and it's a combination of factors that are contributing. ASU lacks a heavy, physical in-line presence at tight end, has a quarterback who isn't much of a threat to keep the ball on zone read plays that are ubiquitous in the team's offense, and appears hesitant to get is quarterback under center in a way that may foster more of an inside run capability. We expected freshmen Nick Ralston to be used as a blocking fullback out of I-formation in short yardage and red zone situations -- and perhaps more broadly if implemented successfully -- but that hasn't materialized. Ralston was on the field once against Texas A&M and the Aggies then called a timeout and Ralson wasn't on the field after the timeout. He wasn't used as a lead blocker against the Mustangs. There is a difference of opinion in the coaching community about whether there is a reduced capability in the run game operating from a Pistol formation or with an offset back -- especially the latter -- but what's absolutely certain is that when the quarterback is much less inclined to pull the ball, the adjustor and backside end is much more emboldened to crash down and muck up the line of scrimmage or worse, make tackles on the running back.

A more physical presence at tight end lessens some of these issues and provides more of a capability in the run game but junior Kody Kohl is 225 pounds and not ideally suited to handle bigger bodies inside and junior Raymond Epps -- who was responsible for a dangerous sack in which he totally missed his blind side blocking assignment -- isn't ready for that type of role either. Any tightening of the interior run lanes contributes to less offensive versatility, puts the team behind schedule on early downs and puts more of an onus on the Sun Devils to keep extra blockers in on third down to protect and help on the edge, and yet ASU hasn't displayed enough of a capability at wide receiver to get open down the field as yet with just two or three receivers running routes.

10. There are some good signs as it relates to ASU's special teams but also some lingering question marks. Junior Zane Gonzalez has done great on kickoffs through two games, making for an easy second-guessing of the decision to not use him in that role the last two years, when the Sun Devils frequently struggled with kickoff coverage and gave opponents good starting field position. ASU's punt teams still are a clear work in progress though, with backup Jacom Brimhall fumbling on one return and muffing another before being pulled in favor of White. Junior Matt Haack had a better game than he did in Houston, and the protection was better. Gonzalez missing what should have been an easy field goal attempt at home was noteworthy.

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