On its first possession, ASU passed on its first three plays from scrimmage against a Lobo team that gave up over 400 yards rushing to the Sun Devils last September. All three attempts were incomplete and ASU went three downs and out. In fact, the Sun Devils went three and out on both of their first two possessions.
On its third possession, ASU meticulously moved the ball downfield on a 17 play drive. It had a first and goal on the 1-yard line but only came away with a field goal. This also happened last week against Cal Poly, a drive that ended with zero points.
The Sun Devils scored their first touchdown of the game with 37 seconds to go in the first half and lead 10-0 at the half.
The struggles on offense have been an amalgamation of different factors. The read-option has not been nearly effective this year as it was in the last three seasons. Offensive line play, particularly at tackle, has not been good. Injuries at running back has been another major issue. All these have combined to create lackluster execution and questionable play calling.
Quarterback Mike Bercovici has not established himself enough as a runner on read-option plays for teams to at least honor him as a runner and not concentrate mainly on the the running back. On ASU’s first possession out of halftime, Bercovici kept the ball twice on successive read-option plays after not doing it all the first half. He gained 13 yards combined on the two plays and it opened up things enough that ASU scored three plays later on a 33-yard screen pass to junior running back Demario Richard. At one point during the TV broadcast in the second quarter, Graham could be seen telling Bercovici that he has to run the ball. Regardless of Bercovici’s confidence level in the read-option, he has to make defenses at least respect him as a ball carrier.
Bercovici’s decision making and accuracy have not been to level we saw last year. He started slow in this game but at one point was seven-for-seven on a late first half touchdown drive in two-minute offense, but a couple of those throws would have been incompletions or maybe intercepted versus better competition.
In the fourth quarter, on the play right before Richard’s 93-yard touchdown reception, Bercovici rolled out under pressure in the end zone and threw the ball away with the score 24-10. It appeared that he did not get the ball past the line scrimmage and could have been called for intentional grounding, which would have resulted in a safety because he threw the ball while in the endzone. If that's a safety it's 24-12 and New Mexico is getting the ball back, which makes it a different feel of a game.
The offensive line play has to improve. ASU was rotating three players at tackle during the game and none of them has established themselves as a quality starter to this point. We saw junior Evan Goodman start at left tackle with redshirt-freshman Sam Jones at right tackle. Goodman wasn’t very sharp early causing the Sun Devils to bring in senior Billy McGehee at right tackle and slide Jones to left tackle. After Jones, who is projects better at guard, had some struggles, Goodman was back in at left tackle with McGehee on the right side. It seems very much as though ASU is trying to figure out who should be getting the bulk of the reps.
We saw ASU use a guard to signal center Nick Kelly to snap the ball, a move that should help eliminate him giving away the snap. Senior Vi Teofilo and junior Stephon McCray both saw time at right guard, perhaps in an effort to keep Teofilo fresh coming off his ACL injury last year, or maybe to legitimately see if McCray can give them more. Senior Christian Westerman hasn’t made the impact many expected yet. The former five-star recruit might be ASU’s best linemen right now but that is not saying much.
Injuries to sophomore Kalen Ballage and junior De’Chavon Hayes have really limited ASU’s options in play-calling and personnel packages. From our play charting, ASU ran over 75 percent of its offensive snaps out of 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end). We never saw ASU line up in 21 personnel (two running backs and one tight end), which is something we have seen ASU run extensively the past three seasons and probably would have been its main offensive look if Ballage was healthy right now. Senior D.J. Foster played mainly running back but was seldom on the field at the same time as sophomore Demario Richard. Foster, Richard and junior Tim White are the Sun Devils true explosive open field players at the moment and both White and Foster have also been dealing with injuries.
With conference play now starting it is incumbent on offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to find packages that he and his quarterback have confidence in. Hayes will probably come back next week, which should give ASU more options. ASU needs to get the ball to Richard as much as possible right now, as he is clearly the Sun Devils’ best player on offense. He finished the game with 109 yards rushing and 151 receiving yards -- a school record for ASU running backs -- on only 19 touches, most of which came later in the game. ASU needs to establish him earlier on to be more successful.
Norvell has been calling plays from the coaches both the last two games. It's hard to say this change has been a productive one but it is probably too early to pull the plug on the move.
Defensively ASU played well. It allowed 184 yard rushing, which was 100 yards better than the 284 it surrendered to Cal Poly last week. If you take away the 65-yard touchdown run by New Mexico running back Tyrone Owens, New Mexico only averaged 3.06 yards per play.
When you account for New Mexico having a 21:01 to 8:59 time of possession advantage in the first half, the ASU defense held up. It had six three-and-outs in the game and held New Mexico to a field goal after junior Tim White muffed a punt at ASU’s 22-yard line.
The defensive line was without junior tackle Ami Latu. We saw redshirt freshman Renell Wren get his first snaps on defense and he responded well in limited duty. He flashed some pass rushing ability and showed that he at least can come in and spell the main group.
ASU had numerous chances to create more tackles-for-loss than it had in the game. On multiple occasions, New Mexico ball carries eluded ASU tacklers behind the line of scrimmage. Sophomore Tashon Smallwood was disruptive but needs to improve his tackling; he was credited with four tackles and no tackles-for-loss but he could had some.
The heart of the defense is the triumvirate of junior spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola, junior linebacker Salamo Fiso and senior safety Jordan Simone. All three have been extremely assignment sound this year and have been ASU’s most productive defenders. The trio combined for 28 tackles (nobody with more than 10) and four and half tackles-for-loss versus New Mexico.
Sophomore linebacker Christian Sam had six tackles but appeared to be caught out of position on Owens' touchdown run. After that play we saw more of fellow sophomore D.J. Calhoun in the game. Sam might have the most NFL potential of any ASU defender but he has only started three games thus far and he should continue to improve.
With New Mexico’s lackluster passing game, ASU’s cornerbacks and field safeties were seldom tested in the game. Seniors Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown played very well. True freshman Kareem Orr had the type of game you would expect from a first-year player making his first start at a position he's never played before in the sense that he was being coached through his alignments on the field by teammates. He was replaced in the middle of the middle of the game by sophomore James Johnson but came back in, perhaps a sign that ASU wanted to get a sense of its personnel ahead of conference. At the end of the game we did see sophomore Chad Adams come in late in the game as well.
Outside of White’s muffed punt, the special teams were solid. Zane Gonzalez’s kickoffs probably all would go into the endzone if not for some where ASU seemed to try to pin New Mexico in the corner on its returns. He also made both field goal attempts.
Matt Haack did not always punt the ball well but he had six punts with a 45.7 average and the Aggies only had seven total yards on punt returns in the game.
ASU did not have any punts where it had much chance to set up a return. White did have one kickoff return for 34 yards.
Overall the special teams seem to be incrementally improving but there are still the one or two big mistakes a game being made. If ASU can eliminate those errors the unit should not be a negative on team like it has been for much of Todd Graham’s first three seasons.