Not armed with its full arsenal of offensive skill weapons through the first three games of the season, Arizona State’s offense has been unable to fire on all cylinders.
The multiple injuries and ailments ASU has suffered early in games -- and even right before -- has contributed to the Sun Devils inability to get any sort of offensive rhythm. ASU has already had to adjust its approach in-game on multiple occasions this season and doing so has effected its ability to put its best product on the field.
“You've got to have some rhythm with the people that are in there consistently, and we've had some not-so-good fortune when it comes to having guys out that are key for us,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said at his Monday press conference. “Our deal is just finding our rhythm.”
So far this season, ASU is averaging 28.7 points per game -- more than a touchdown fewer than any of the past three seasons under Graham. Through ASU’s three games this season, it ranks as the ninth-best scoring offense in the Pac-12, even with it going against two inferior non-conference opponents.
Moreover, ASU’s average total offense (423.7 yards), average rushing offense (157.3 yards), first downs (22.0) and third down conversions (37.5 percent) through its first three games have all been lower than any of the previous season averages under Graham.
However, despite the drop in offensive production, coaches aren't ready to say they don't have the explosive play-making capability they've enjoyed the past three seasons. According to ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen, the Sun Devils have their fair share of capable players on the offense, but it’s just a matter of having those players play better.
“It’s just a matter of execution and a matter of doing the little things right and offensively all 11 have to do that,” Thomsen said. “There’s no room for gray area. You got breakdowns. I think we have plenty of capability, we just have to execute and do our job.”
With conference play now squarely in their sights, the Sun Devils are hoping to get fully up to speed when they play No. 19 USC at home Saturday, and they'll likely need to be in order to get a win.
In the last five years, ASU has averaged 38.6 points per game against USC. That’s the third best scoring output in a five-game stretch by any team against the Trojans in history according to ASU Media Relations research.
Last season, ASU senior quarterback Mike Bercovici, playing for an injured Taylor Kelly, completed 27 of 45 pass attempts for 510 yards against the Trojans in Los Angeles. In doing so, Bercovici became the first player in history to throw for five touchdowns against the Trojans, the last of which being a 46-yard Hail Mary to Jaelen Strong to give ASU a near-miraculous 38-34 win with no time left on the game clock.
ASU is no doubt hoping it can get its offense in high gear against the Trojans again this year after its early struggles.
“The key for us is just take what they (the defense) give us, and obviously be able to execute what we're doing,” Graham said. “And the biggest thing is just getting the tempo and the rhythm about what you're doing and just breaking out and hitting on all cylinders is kind of the deal.”
This week should bring invigorated changes to the offense with Graham saying on Tuesday that sophomore running back Kalen Ballage was “good to go” for Saturday’s game, as well as junior running back De’Chavon Hayes.
With Ballage, 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, set to come back from mono after a three week hiatus and Hayes set to come back from a left hamstring strain he suffered against Cal Poly, ASU looks to at least get support for sophomore starter Demario Richard in a thus-far thin ASU backfield.
“Guys are going to get banged up,” Thomsen said. “And that’s every team. Every team I’ve been a part of I’ve seen that so the teams that cope with that the best are the ones that win championships.”
Though Ballage and Hayes look to provide a jolt to a lagging offense, ASU’s offense took another potential blow after senior wide receiver Devin Lucien left Friday’s game against New Mexico with a left hamstring injury. Monday, Graham told reporters Lucien would be “doubtful” for Saturday’s game, but on Tuesday Graham said Lucien took some reps with the offense and will most likely play. With Lucien questionable going into Saturday’s game, ASU will benefit from being able to move senior D.J. Foster back to wide receiver, after he was forced to fill in at running back the last several weeks.
Even with Foster now back at receiver, junior wide receiver Tim White will likely be a key player in ASU’s offensive game plan Friday, especially after seeing his explosive abilities against New Mexico. USC showed some vulnerability against Stanford in a 41-31 loss last week in which Kevin Hogan threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns on just 23 attempts with 18 completions.
White, who missed ASU’s first game due to a hand injury, said he plans to be starting at the 2-receiever spot as he did last week. White is hoping to use his explosiveness in a way that helped the now departed Strong make 10 catches for 202 yards last year against the Trojans.
Following practice Tuesday, Foster echoed White's opinion that ASU's offense’s need to move at a quicker pace. ASU fans saw this brisk tempo offense in ASU’s final drive of the first half against New Mexico when quarterback Mike Bercovici went 7 for 7 on the drive ending in a 10-yard touchdown by White.
It was then out of halftime that ASU’s dormant offense really came to life, when Bercovici started pulling the ball more on his zone reads. That, in turn, opened up the rest of the offense.
“You’re trying to grind out four or five yards inside and then all of a sudden that ball pulls and if you have no one there to defend it, you get potentially, ten, I think we had a 10-yard touchdown off that the other night,” Thomsen said. “You’re not running through a bunch of people when you pull that ball so it helps a ton. You get more explosive plays on the edge.”
But with Bercovici not pulling the ball really until the third quarter against New Mexico, concerns arose about Bercovici’s inability or unwillingness to run the read option regularly and it was a focal point with reporters during ASU's post-game press conference and also Graham’s Monday presser.
“I don't think Mike is an option-style quarterback,” Graham said when asked about Bercovici’s ability to use his speed in the read option. “He's a run-play action-pass guy that can utilize his legs with the read zone. The big thing is just taking what they give you. If they cover everybody and you can run with the ball, run with the ball. Just take what they give you, and I think that's the biggest thing that we emphasize with Mike.”
Bercovici said on Monday using his running ability is something Graham had instilled in his brain since he came to ASU. Graham told him upfront that the quarterback position in ASU’s offense had to be able to utilize their legs and Bercovici saw that with former ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly at the helm of the offense.
In ASU’s win against New Mexico last year, Kelly ran for 84 yards and averaged 8.9 yards per carry. As a whole, ASU’s offense ran over the Lobos with 423 rushing yards. Contrast that with the 15 rushing yards Bercovici picked up on Friday night, and ASU's 132 rushing yards and there’s a clear discrepancy.
But, Bercovici insists he knows he has to take advantage of the opportunities he’s given with the zone read.
“I think something that if they don't account for the quarterback, you've just got to make him hurt, and that's something that we did,” Bercovici said. “But going week to week, we have an identity. We don't change up every single week of how it works. But if the opportunity calls for using your legs, that's what we do.”
In addition to the zone read troubles, ASU’s short yardage and goal line capability have also been thrown under the microscope. Twice in the redzone against Cal Poly, ASU fell short completely and failed to score a touchdown or a field goal. Once against Cal Poly and once against New Mexico, ASU had the ball first and goal at the one and wasn't able to get a touchdown.
Some -- not all -- of this inefficiency has come from ASU inability to be in heavier offensive personnel groupings at the goal line. This lack of capability in two tight end formations or use of a fullback has also been limiting in regards to ASU’s offensive playbook and perhaps not allowed Bercovici to shine as brightly when combined with the availability limitations at skill positions.
“Some of those guys that were involved in those packages were banged up early in camp and then you go into the season and you’re a bit uncomfortable if you try to place guys in there who you thought would help you out in those packages and then they’re not available so the execution of it is a little bit different,” Thomsen said.