1. Things are rarely as good or as bad as they seem and that certainly applies to football. It's human nature to emotionalize things to extremes of the specturm, particularly when we're talking about fandom. It probably doesn't seem like it but Saturday's game was closer than the score and turned on just a few plays. Imagine if sophomore running back Demario Richard doesn't fumble at the USC 23 yard line on ASU's first drive? Is the game tied 7-7? Is it 7-3? Then ASU hits an invisible wall around the USC 35 yard line and misses two long field goals with the ball inside the USC 35. How may points would ASU typically come away with when it gets the ball in scoring range three times? It got zero on those three drives.
Then, ASU has the ball first and goal at the two and on two plays goes from about-to-be-back-in-the-game to completely out of it. Usually ASU gets a touchdown in that situation -- probably 80 percent of the time -- but instead it fumbles and USC returns it for a touchdown. That's a 14 point swing on one play. Then, junior De'Chavon Hayes inexplicably takes the ball out of the end zone seven yards deep on the ensuing kickoff and coughs it up with 19 seconds left and the Trojans score again. 35-0.
If you cancel out the USC quarterback Cody Kessler interception in the red zone and the Richard fumble and give ASU three points assuming it usually makes at least one of its two long field goals, and then ASU scores a touchdown from first-and-goal, and USC doesn't score with 20 seconds left in the half, it is a score of 21-10 at halftime and ASU has the ball to start the third quarter....and....ASU is the team that's running the ball much better at that point, so the game feels relativley close. Three plays: making one of two field goals, not fumbling it and getting a 14 point swing on one play, and not taking a ball out of the end zone on a kickoff are literally the difference between 35-0 and a huge chasm in the way the game is perceived by fans.
2. The backbone of ASU's success in its consecuive 10-win seasons the last two years is not coincidentally the No. 1 predictor of football games: turnover margin. ASU led the Pac-12 in 2013 with a plus-15 margin and was second to Oregon with a plus-14 resut in 2014. That's how you win football games. This year ASU is tied for last in the league at minus-3 through four games. That is an astounding reversal. ASU's pressure heavy defense has predictably induced turnovers and gotten its defense off the field in recent years, and ASU's disciplined approach to football -- ball security and ultra-low penalties -- has been oak-solid reliable.
There was nothing about this team that would have hinted to us in the preseason that ASU would have already lost a league-high seven fumbles in four games. Last season ASU was the best team in the league at holding the football. It only lost four fumbles all season. Think about that. Four fumbles lost last season in 13 games, seven fumbles lost this season in four. There is no way to predict this or expect it. Is it a fluke? It has happened to lose a high percentage of its fumbles and probably recovered a higher than normal percentage last year, but there's no way this could have been forecast. This ASU team doesn't have the firepower to overcome such an Achilles Heel.
3. Part of the reason ASU hasn't induced more turnovers is self-inflicted and recruiting related. The Sun Devils impacted the quarterback at higher rate in previous seasons, and when it was operating at its best, did so with its front four players. Led by Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, ASU had 52 sacks, second best in the league, and 40 sacks in 2013, third best in the league. Even last year after Sutton and Bradford had departed, ASU had 39 sacks, but there were signs of some increased inefficiency and that has continued into this year.
ASU is on pace for its worst sack output in the Graham era, on pace for fewer than 30 sacks through a quarter of its season, and its leader is sophomore linebacker Christian Sam, with three sacks. Granted, ASU played two triple option teams and that skews the numbers, but Graham said ASU should have sacked Kessler eight times Saturday and it was credited with just two. When you have a pressure based system and mindset, and your front four aren't getting home, you have to rely more on others to destabilize the pocket and that leads to more opportunities for an opposing quarterback to pick your defense apart, especially when the blitzes aren't working.
In 2012, ASU's third down defense was successful nearly two-thirds of the time, a 35.1 opponent conversion rate. In 2013 it was 37.1 percent. In 2014, even after Sutton and Bradford left, ASU held up well, at 37.8 percent. This year, ASU is giving up third downs about half the time, a 47.3 opponent conversion rate. Against USC it had a shockingly poor performance. The Trojans were 10 of 16 in the game and converted third and 13, third and 16, third and 15, third and 9, and third and 10, and that was just in the first half.
This is the fourth year of the Graham era. He's the defensive architect and play caller. He's responsible for having the players that enable the turnover-generation machine that ASU has been to this point in his tenure at the school, but the Sun Devils don't have someone currently ready to play at or near the Sutton and Bradford levels at those two key positions. Graham didn't recruit Sutton or Bradford, they were inhereted. He has yet to put a Devil backer or 3-technique tackle on the field that he recruited who is nearly as impactful as those two. Sure, it's easy to say that Davon Durant would have been that guy this year, but he's not in Tempe. Others, including freshmen Joseph Wicker, Jalen Bates and Bo Wallace look very promising. But that's for the future. Graham said this is his best team now.
4. ASU's offensive identity remains uncertain through four games. Just a week ago Graham was saying ASU needed to speed things up. Immediately after the USC game he said ASU huddled and slowed the game down because they wanted a game with fewer players. That's a borderline shocking admission that is not congruent with potent, high-powered offenses in the ASU mold. A frequent philosophy of why coaches want to slow it down is to grind games out due to talent disparity. Was ASU's lack of current potency on offense and perceived personnel disparity with USC the reason? Concern over lack of depth and inability to stay as fresh as USC? Some other reason? We don't know, exactly, but it's clear ASU hasn't settled in offensively at all this year. Norvell has gone from the sidelines to the press box for the first time, ASU has gone from saying it wanted to speed things up to slowing it down, and there's been a vague sense of an identity crisis.
Senior quarterback Mike Bercovici isn't resonsible for many of ASU's problems, though fans are always going to single out the quarterback, and to be sure, Bercovici hasn't played especially well this season. The huge turnover disparity isn't on Bercovici, really. Sure, he put the ball on the ground too often against Texas A&M, but he only has two interceptions. He's not playing on defense, where ASU hasn't been able to get off the field nearly well enough or impact the quarterback as it has in the past. He's not playing on special teams, where ASU's continued to show significant flaws.
Perhaps most importantly as it relates to Bercovici, he's not able to throw and catch the football. Bercovici is capable of being successful in the Pac-12 but it has to be in the right situation. He's not the great elixer for ASU's offense that a lot of people probably thought he was last season when he came off the bench to excel in a smaller sample size of games. Even though he's gotten much more mobile, he's not a read option quarterback. He needs to be surrounded with the right personnel, which includes a great proteciton offensive line, tight ends and backs that stay in and protect and are impacting in the run game, and some speed deamons at wide receiver who can win down the field. He doesn't have that. There is no Jaelen Strong to throw the ball to 10 times a game on back shoulder fades to mask a lot of the broader issues. The personnel around Bercovici is not good enough nor well suited for the type of quarterback Bercovici is, and Bercovici isn't good enough to overcome that being the case.
5. The red zone has been a glaring minefield for the Sun Devils this year, and again, it's not really Bercovici's fault. ASU's had first and goal at the 1-yard line in each of the last three games and is ostesnsibly a net minus-4 in points in those situations. That's almost unbelievable. It has three points and gave up seven points on USC's fumble return for a touchdown. What a lot of fans understandably took from that play was Bercovici wasn't under center, again, at a goal line situation. There is less chance of a bad snap by a backup center in that sitaution, less chance a defensive lineman is going to squeeze through and meet the quarterback and running back at the handoff point
Bercovici is kind of like a poor man's Drew Brees. Put him under center, drop him back, use a lot of tight ands and fullbacks, heavy and hard play action. But ASU didn't recruit him and yet he's their best quarterback, however, its personnel isn't totally built for it. ASU needs bigger tight ends, a capable fullback, and receivers who win, even in the red zone. ASU scored 89.3 percent in the red zone two years ago, and 90.6 percent in the red zone last season. This year, it's down to 78.9 percent.
6. Sophomore running back Demario Richard is a tonic for this offense that isn't being doused around as liberally as it needs to be by Norvell. Richard has 429 rushing yards on 70 carries this season (17.5 per game) and is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Against USC, Richard had just 14 carries in 79 offensive plays by ASU, and averaged 9.4 yards per carry.
What am I missing here? ASU's 20 and 21 personnel looks were mimicking what Stanford successfully did a week earlier when it beat USC 41-31, albeit with much heavier personnel. ASU was dominating inside at the point of attack, just as we forecast it could in the Expert Advance, using its second back as a lead blocker, and Richard was wearing USC out. So why go away from that hardly at all on early downs? The guy can handle the workload, especially now that sophomore Kalen Ballage is back. There's been too much of an attempt by Norvell to make the perfect call situationally instead of just dumbing things down and giving opponents a heavier dose of Richard.
The Trojans couldn't handle Stanford's rushing attack inside until it brought an extra defender into the box and that's what opened up its play action passing game. That's what ASU has to do to be succesful.
7. USC did the best its done in recent years at scheming for mismatches. If that's a sign of progress, it should send a chill down the backs of opposing teams' fans in the Pac-12 because the Trojans have superior talent and have a ton of young, ultra-elite prospects dotting the roster. If you recall, against Texas A&M we felt Kevin Sumin's 2x2 formations would test ASU senior safety Jordan Simone into the boundary againt a speedy slot receiver. The Aggies weren't able to do that. I probably didn't give the USC staff enough credit because on the very first play of the game they were in a 2x2 formation with a design of getting their best receiver Juju Smith-Schuster in a one-on-one with Simone and it worked.
Simone is a very good player but not a speed guy at safety and was exposed a bit in this game. But you have to largely look at the situations ASU coaches put their defensive backs in due to how aggressive they are as a major component. ASU is probably best served to mix in more zone blitzes or even just rush three players sometimes on third and long. It never did this against USC and the rest was five conversions of third and 9 or longer in the first half. Yes, Kessler is extremely accurate, but he was throwing to players who were running for first downs and a lot of yards after the catch. ASU could have at least mixed it up.
8. Graham was harsh in his rebuke of De'Chavon Hayes for his decision to take the ball out of the end zone near the end of the first half in the situation, saying players are coached every day to not do it. But it's still ultimately the coaches' responsibility to put a player on the field who will execute what they've asked, and especially in a situation like that one. Did special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum go to Hayes before the play and tell him right to his face he wouldn't play on kickoffs again all season if he brought the ball out of the end zone from deep? That's probably what it takes for a guy who hasn't seen the field at all until this season and is making big mistakes. He also ran the wrong play once and led to a busted play. Hayes is a great athlete but is still trying to rely on that too much.
9. Junior Laiu Moeakiola didn't look healthy against USC a week after appearing to re-hurt the shoulder injury that bothered him through most of last season. Moeakiola may be ASU's best player but he was almost a non-factor against the Trojans after being in a green non-contact jersey in ASU's Tuesday and Wednesday practices. A very physical and reliable tackler, Moeakiola several times didn't even try to wrap up or hit/grasp players as he normally would when healthy, and several of ASU's biggest missed tackles -- of which there were too many, were by Moeakiola. That's uncharacteristic to the point of not even believable unless he's bothered by the shoulder.
10. The future remains very bright for the Sun Devils. They're playing very few freshmen from an extremely talented class that is the best tailored we've seen yet to their philosophical approach to offense and defense. They are likely to have the right type of quarterback to lead them into the future already on their roster or coming in next year. They have stabilizing offensive skill players who are sophomores or freshmen, young and talented offensive linemen, and a better overall caliber of athlete on defense waiting in the wings across the board as freshmen and sophomores, some of whom are already showing in on the field, including Sam, Wicker and Kareem Orr. ASU's talent level this season, despite what was built up to be, isn't much different than last year, but is trending in the right direction and will be better especially in 2017 and 2018.