Waiting for the elevator to take him from the press box after Arizona State’s 34-10 win against New Mexico Friday night, ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell was visibly frustrated. The Sun Devils offense had once again struggled early to find any rhythm, mimicking ASU’s showing last week against Cal Poly.
Across the stadium in another elevator, ASU tight ends coach Chip Long had a similar demeanor. He was near-silent and seemed to be deep in thought. A week earlier, Cal Poly had held ASU’s offense to a mere 21 points until the fourth quarter when ASU broke out for two game-winning touchdowns.
Friday night against Mountain West New Mexico, ASU went scoreless in the first quarter, unable to get anything going on offense. In their first two drives, ASU went three-and-out and quarterback Mike Bercovici was 0 for 4. At one point in the first half, senior wide receiver D.J. Foster even had a mere three touches for a net gain of minus-1 yards.
As told by the faces of Norvell and Long post-game, ASU isn't firing on all cylinders offensively. Yet, in the team's post-game press conference, Bercovici and ASU head coach Todd Graham claimed the Sun Devils’ offense is headed the right direction and Graham went as far to say ASU’s best football is ahead.
“We are 2-1 and now the games that don’t matter as much are done and we start conference play next week,” Graham said. “We have USC coming into 'Maroon Monsoon,' I think sellout crowd. This is what it’s all about and our guys are going to play their best game next week. I guarantee our guys will come to play next week. It is Pac-12, which is what we play for.”
But, with the body language Norvell and Long emulating the feeling of much of ASU’s fan base and Graham and Bercovici consistently maintaining the Sun Devils’ offense is fine, which is the real reality?
As he's prone to do, Bercovici heaped praise on his offense following a performance in which he completed 22 of 37 passes for 317 yards and three touchdowns.
“When we start going, we start finding our identity, playing fast," Bercovci said. "I thought offensive line did a great job of getting (over) the ball fast. We were in amazing shape today. Offensive line and wideouts were playing full speed, and when we do that we feel like we can’t be stopped.”
This season, however, ASU has been averaged a meager 28.6 points per game – more than a touchdown fewer than any of the past three seasons under Graham (37.8), through a quarter of their regular season schedule, which includes the two easiest opponents.
It's difficult to tell whether coaches truly believe they're really in good shape on offense heading into conference play, or if they're trying to put on a brave face and talk themselves into being the type of team they aspire to be.
Graham has stated on multiple occasions that he believes this ASU team is the best team he’s had since he arrived in Tempe more than three years ago, and reiterated to fans his confidence in recent weeks following challenged offensive outings. To outsiders looking in, the offense has been anything but impressive.
Senior wide receiver D.J. Foster has yet to have an All-American caliber performance like some believed he would after making the full-time move to wide receiver. Bercovici hasn’t been making consistent and accurate throws every game. Junior tight end Kody Kohl hasn’t been a staple and standout player in the offense like he was talked up to be.
Yet to Graham, he still says the offense, especially its showing against New Mexico, is nothing to worry about.
“Offensively we started hitting our stride,” Graham said. “We needed that second quarter, where we did some nice things there. We came out and got in our rhythm. And then in the second half, we did a good job in the third quarter, as well. I am very proud of our guys; I thought they played very well.”
However back on the sidelines Friday night, Graham’s demeanor told a different story. Pacing up and down the sidelines, Graham was anything but calm. In the second quarter, right before ASU’s first touchdown drive of the night, Graham took Bercovici aside on the sidelines and in essence told him: ‘You need to run the ball more. You’re not the coordinator.’
It almost mirrored when Graham lobbied Norvell on the sidelines against Texas A&M, telling him ASU needed to run the ball more –specifically giving the ball to sophomore running back Demario Richard up the middle.
In both cases, the offense was under Graham’s critical microscope. It wasn’t producing as it had been the last three years despite the constant praise oozing from Norvell and Graham about the explosive ability ASU has on that side of the ball with Foster, Richard, junior wide receiver Tim White, and senior wide receiver Lucien.
Against New Mexico, ASU ran 66 plays and had 10 explosive plays all game. But, eight of those explosive plays came in the second half, as the Sun Devils struggled to move the ball almost at all until a two-minute offensive drive just before the break.
Comparing ASU’s results Friday night to ASU’s game against the Lobos in New Mexico last year, the Sun Devil offense looked almost unrecognizable.
Last year, under the helm of quarterback Taylor Kelly, ASU won 58-23 and averaged 8.8 yards per rush behind Foster’s 216 total rushing yards, Kelly’s 84 rushing yards, and Richard’s 57 rushing yards. Friday night, ASU averaged 4.4 yards per rush – half of last year’s results.
In total, ASU had 132 rushing yards, but it was nothing compared to the 423 yards ASU put up against the Lobos last year. Foster only had eight of those 132 rushing yards with Richard carrying the offensive load with 104 yards – 32 of those yards coming on one play.
Subtracting Richard’s 93-yard touchdown off a pass from Bercovici in the third quarter, ASU averaged a modest 5.3 per play on offense. Last year, ASU averaged 9.0 yards per play on offense against the Lobos.
"I'm just doing whatever my coaches and whatever the offense needs me to do," Richard said. "We'll get healthy and once we get healthy, this offense is really going to start rolling. We're just being patient, doing what we are coached to do and we're going to keep winning games."
Clearly there is an offensive disparity from this season to the last, but ASU has seemingly yet to fully acknowledge it. Bercovici has especially been the target of questions regarding his inability or unwillingness to run the read option properly -- it was a focal point with reporters during ASU's post-game press conference -- but when teammates were asked about it, they turned to comedic relief.
“When Mike pulls the ball, it’s beautiful, it’s poetry in motion,” safety Jordan Simone said with a bit of levity. “I think people give him a lot of credit for being a great athlete already, but I think he’s even more of an athlete than that. I would compare him to Michael Vick from Madden 2000. He can really use his feet, when he does he makes magic happen.”
Despite the “magic” capability Simone and ASU coaches may see from Bercovici and the offense, the stat sheets at the end of the night are magic-free.
On paper, the Sun Devils aren’t performing like they have the past three years under Graham and on the field ASU isn’t performing like it has been either. But yet, when asked if ASU and its offense is ready come conference play next week, the answer remains the same.
“All it is, is another step up the mountain,” Bercovici said. “Another step, another game, we are just excited to get back out to practice.”