Intant Analysis: Sun Devils struggle in blowout loss to Trojans

With a confidence-sapping loss to USC Saturday, Arizona State is clearly not playing as though it's one of the better teams in the Pac-12 South, much less a strong contender to win the league.

Ugly is how to describe Arizona State’s performance against USC Saturday night in Tempe.

The Sun Devils came into the game underdogs at home but with a measure of confidence in part because of their two-game win streak over the Trojans. The players seemed to be more excited than we have typically seen in pre-game. That excitement was all gone by halftime.

The Sun Devils were Jekyll and Hyde all night. Seniors Lloyd Carrington and Jordan Simone both were beaten on 52-yard reception by USC sophomore standout Juju Smith-Schuster on the Trojans’ first play from scrimmage. Four plays later ASU freshman Kareem Orr intercepted a pass from USC quarterback Cody Kessler at the 2-yard line.
Sophomore Demario Richard broke a 61 yard run on the Sun Devils’ first play from scrimmage, but Richard gave the ball back to USC four plays later when he fumbled the ball at the USC 23. 
ASU came out and established the run early with nine rushes for 107 yards in the first quarter. On its second possession, ASU moved the ball into scoring position but Zane Gonzalez missed a 47-yard field goal.
The ASU defense had issues getting off the field early on. USC was three out of four on third down conversions in the first quarter, and all three of those conversion were on plays when the distance to make a first down was 12 yards or more. ASU allowed an 80-yard score to sophomore Adoree Jackson and a 21-yard run by Kessler on two of those plays. On two of the third downs, ASU only rushed four defenders, which is not the typical approach we have seen from Todd Graham on third and long situations.
Like against UCLA last year at home, it was the second quarter or the last the few minutes of the quarter that  did in the Sun Devils. ASU trailed 21-0 with 3:29 left in the half, when it drove down to the USC 1-yard line with under a minute to play in the half. ASU seemingly was going to go into halftime trailing 21-7 and getting the ball out of half. What happened next might be the worst 30 seconds of Graham’s career.
With senior center Nick Kelly out of the game, junior Stephon McCray made a poor snap, senior left tackle Evan Goodman was beaten off the snap and USC's defensive tackle met Bercovici and Richard at the mesh point of the read-option forcing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown by sophomore safety Chris Hawkins. Essentially it was a 14 point swing on one play sequence because ASU should have cut its deficit by seven points and insted saw it grow by seven.  
This is the third time in three games that ASU has had a first and goal at the 1-yard line and failed to score a touchdown. ASU’s performance in goal to go situations has been terrible. On this particular play, it didn't even have,its fullback in the game and wasn't operating under center, which contributed to the play result. 
On the subsequent kickoff, junior De'Chavon Hayes inexplicably decided to return the ball out of his own end zone with with 25 seconds left in the half. He ended up fumbling and three plays later USC scored to make it 35-0, essentially ending the game. Graham said after the game he has no idea why Hayes decided to take the ball out of the end zone because it's not what players are coached to do in the situation. 
After making a name for himself versus USC last year, Senior Mike Bercovici had arguably his worst performance as a starter for ASU. He finished the game 23 for 44 with 272 yards passing and one interception but he only had 144 of those yards after three quarters and USC was sitting back for most of the fourth quarter.
Bercovici only really rushed the ball four times in the game and was a non-factor in the read-option during this game. This, after seemingly lighting a spark for the ASU offense last week coming out of halftime when he kept the ball on few read-option plays. 
His struggles mainly came in the passing game when he was locking on to his primary option and forgoing open receivers too much in the game. The offensive playcalling has been disjointed at times this year and in this game. ASU rushed 19 times and attempted 18 passes in the first half. But only 77 of its 225 yards at half came via the pass. ASU could have and probably should have run the ball more in the first half. Richard only had six rushes in the first half but had 82 yards. 
At this point in the season it is fair to question to overall approach ASU has taken on offense this year. In 2014 ASU adjusted its defense to fit its personnel when it could not get enough production out of the Devil backer position. ASU had adjusted the offense this year but right now it seems like a more radical adjustment is needed. Playing under center more and building a passing game around play-action could create more opportunities for success.
Tight end is still a position at which ASU in not getting consistent play. Junior Kody Kohl made some plays but dropped a wide open pass early on in the middle of the field for a big play with nobody around him. Sophomore Raymond Epps dropped a touchdown pass when he was wide open.
The running backs played well and sophomore Kalen Ballage's return from mononucleosis gave ASU a spark even if his numbers (nine carries for 33 yards) were rather pedestrian.  
Defensively it was about not making plays that were there and not getting off the field on third down. ASU missed multiple tackles in the game and had according to Graham should have had eight sacks in the game but only finished the game with two sacks.
AU's final third down numbers were bad, USC converting 10 of 16 attempts. The USC offense only had two three downs and out in the game and one of those came at the end when it put in backup quarterback Max Browne. 
The ASU run defense was strong, only surrendering 2.4 yard per carry but giving up 19 yards per completion in the Pac-12 is not a winning formula. 
ASU didn’t blitz as much as we have seen under Graham but it did not help the defensive backs very much. Carrington did not play great and left the game with an injury and Simone was exposed in space multiple times. Coverage has never been Simone’s strong suit but he has to be better because in the Pac-12 teams will scheme to get him in one-on-one situations in space.
The issues on third down and lack of sacks correlate to ASU’s lack of an elite edge rusher. Senior devil backer Antonio Longino is a good player but he is better suited playing inside than on the edge. Freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson played a lot in nickel situations and flashed the kind of pass rushing ability ASU needs but he is not ready to usurp Longino full-time at devil.
Special teams, like the other two units, were a mixed bag. Zane Gonzalez's kickoffs were all touchbacks but he missed both of field goal tries. Granted, his misses came from 47 and 52 yards. Matt Haack had a 46.2 yards per punt average but only a 33 yard net.
It was Hayes decision to return the kickoff at the end of the half that stands out but he also chose to field a punt at the 5-yard line early on in the game. That return did go for 19 yards but the decision was poor and his decision making overall on returns has been questionable. Jackson had a long punt return that gave USC a short field. 
With a game at UCLA next on the schedule it is incumbent on the coaching staff to right the ship. They will have a hard time beating the Bruins on the road playing at their best but playing the level of football we have seen in the last four games with most likely lead to a blowout loss. 
Right now the Sun Devils appear to be no better than the fourth team in the Pac-12 South and a seven win season is something that many fans would probably take right now if offered. It has been a rough month for a team that had many in the media predicting a playoff appearance for in August. There is still a lot of football in front of team but the from top to bottom the players and coaches need to raise their level of performance. 

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