Only four games into the 2015 season Arizona State’s offense -- as well its relationship with its fan base -- has seemingly been on the rocks. With offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s offense not producing as it has in years' past, concerns have arisen if it will continue to underproduce or if ASU can rediscover its identity.
Wednesday, Norvell reiterated his expectations of what the offense is capable of is unchanged from the start of the season. He then went on to take full blame for his team’s recent lack of production.
“Have we played as well as I want us to? No, we haven’t and everything that's done on that field, I’m 100 percent responsible for,” Norvell said. “So I have not done a good enough job and we’re working on continuing to improve that.”
Norvell also admitted -- like he had in previous weeks -- there have been games in which he felt he didn’t put players in the best position to be successful, but that’s all part of his learning process.
Mix that in with untimely turnovers and ASU’s inability to score in the red zone, and the Sun Devils’ offense is clearly struggling to stay afloat.
“We definitely have to clean up the execution,” Norvell said. “Some decision making when bad things do happen, we have to make great decisions on that and I got to call better plays when we get down there (red zone) and make sure we get the ball in the end zone.”
However, sophomore running back Kalen Ballage – who played in his first game of the season on Saturday after being out with three weeks with mono– might have summed up ASU’s offense’s troubles best.
“We’re just trying to find our identity right now,” Ballage said. “We’re a different team than last year. We’re going to get this thing running and once we find our stride, we’re going to be a dangerous team.”
Like Ballage said, the Sun Devils aren’t the team they were last year and perhaps the most glaring difference from the 2015 ASU offense and the 2014 ASU offense is there’s no Jaelen Strong and specifically, there’s no player so far that can come close to emulating Strong.
After losing 42-14 to USC on Saturday, ASU head coach Todd Graham said the team had to slow down its offense in hopes of counteracting the explosive playmakers on USC’s offense. But, if ASU had a go-to, move-the-chains-on-third-down type player like Strong on its roster this year, the question arises if the Sun Devils would have made the same decision.
“If you're not executing, it doesn't do you any good to go fast,” Graham said on Monday. “So we modified a little bit there, and I thought it helped, just kind of gauge our guys a little bit.”
Strong was one of senior quarterback Mike Bercovici’s and former ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly’s top targets when he was on the field – especially on third down. Through ASU’s first four games last year, Strong was ASU’s top receiver and had 31 catches for 412 yards.
Through four games this season, not one ASU wide receiver has come close to putting up those numbers. Senior wide receiver D.J. Foster has the most number of catches on the team with 22, but has only gained 189 yards. Last year, even primarily at running back, Foster had 16 catches for 207 yards through four games.
“When we have the opportunity to throw to D.J., we like to throw to D.J., so that’s something we’re going to continue do,” Norvell said. “Continue to try to find ways to get him the football and make sure we have an opportunity for him to impact the game.”
Senior wide receiver Devin Lucien – who is new to ASU’s system and has been banged up the past couple weeks – and junior tight end Kody Kohl – who Graham said was supposed to make a big impact on the offense this year – are tied for second-most catches through ASU’s four games with 13 each, but only have 147 yards and 134 yards respectively.
Putting those numbers in perspective, in Strong’s first game last season against Weber State, he had 10 catches for 146 yards. In one game he matched the strength of Lucien or Kohl through four.
But, Bercovici still stayed unwavering in his opinion that his offense has explosive play-making capabilities and the third-down conversions without Strong is not an issue.
“There’s D.J., there’s (sophomore) Ellis (Jefferson), there’s Devin, there’s (senior) Gary (Chambers), there’s (junior) Tim (White), there’s so many other ways we can find those one-on-one targets and the presentation might look a little different in years past, but we still have the capabilities to make all those types of third down throws,” Bercovici said on Monday. “Moving forward, it’s something we need to get better at and as the quarterback, I just got to give our playmakers an opportunity to make a play.”
But not all the blame can be put on Bercovici. Foster, Lucien, White and junior wide receiver De’Chavon Hayes have all been hurt at some point in the season thus far and ASU doesn’t have the depth or experience to make up for those losses.
“We got to come out here and continue to work and just find our rhythm and find what we do best and that’s running the ball and that’s taking shots and getting open,” Foster said. “Receivers got to take a little more pride in that during the week. We got to work hard as a receiving corps to make it easier on Berco on our line to get open and get off our routes.”
With injuries hampering the wide receivers group, injuries also have affected the running backs group with the loss of Ballage for three weeks and Hayes suffering a hamstrung injury against Cal Poly in Week 2.
Add in all the injuries with Bo Graham’s – former ASU running backs coach -- resignation less than two weeks before the Sun Devils’ season opener against Texas A&M on Sept. 5, and ASU’s offensive struggles get more convoluted.
The following week after Ballage was ruled out the day before the season opener against Texas A&M, Norvell made the move from coaching on the sidelines to being in the coaches’ box against Cal Poly – a job Bo Graham had at ASU.
Todd Graham said at the time he thought Norvell couldn’t really get the information on the field that he needed in-game so he wanted him to make the move to the press box. Norvell then said ASU felt like ASU tight ends coach Chip Long would be better suited on the field than in the press box so he could be with the running backs and make in-game adjustments.
However, after two weeks since the coaching adjustments, there have been no clear signs of improvement. Even when ASU’s offense would finally start to find its rhythm in games, especially against USC, it shot itself in the foot with its untimely turnovers.
Case and point, the fumble by sophomore running back Demario Richard at USC’s 23-yard line on ASU’s first drive and ASU’s fumble from first and goal at the 1-yard line.
In both those drives, ASU showed its explosive abilities, but its inabilities to hold onto the football wiped away any positive signs.
“We self-destructed with takeaways and making poor decisions but at the end of the day we can get those things corrected,” Graham said Monday. “There's not much to say other than we need to get it done.”
However, despite ASU’s self-inflicted wounds against USC, Norvell found a positive in the loss that might just be the key to the Sun Devils’ hopes of rejuvenating their dormant offense.
“We go back and watch that game and we got our butts kicked on Saturday and there’s not many times I got my butt kicked and left with some encouraging feelings, but there were,” Norvell said. “The way we were able to run the football was encouraging to me.”
With senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington still hobbled after USC, Hayes took first-team reps at corner in a nickel situation and had an interception of Bercovici in the end zone on an under thrown ball to Lucien.