In light of Arizona State's underwhelming 4-3 season start, there's a growing perception that the team's offensive struggles may be at least in part related to a scheme that doesn't totally fit its personnel.
ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell doesn't agree with this perspective.
Taking it a step further, Norvell said doesn't think there's a problem with the team's approach this season and senior quarterback Mike Bercovici is more than capable of successfully leading ASU's offense as currently configured. Instead, Novell believes film review shows the Sun Devils aren't executing as well as they have in previous seasons.
"I think Mike does fit what we're trying to do," Norvell told SunDevilSource following ASU's Wednesday practice. "I think Mike is a very intelligent quarterback. We're not a spread offense, not a spread triple option read every play type offense. We're a run-play-action-pass offense and sometimes the play actions are built into run plays and you've got to be able to manage the perimeter.
"Those are things that, we don't need to (philosophically) change what we're doing. That's not really the problem. We've got to do a better job of executing with 11 people on the field at one time. I think you can see some really bright spots in some of the games we've played but we haven't done it consistently enough in terms of executing. Then when we get opportunities to finish, we have to do that as well."
Through seven games the Sun Devils are 2-2 in Pac-12 play and a longshot to reach their preseason goal of Pac-12 champs. Alarmingly, they rank No. 9 in total offense and No. 10 in rushing offense in the Pac-12. Only Oregon State is averaging fewer than ASU's 5.5 yards per play and only Washington and Washington State are averaging fewer than ASU's 4.0 yards per carry, a statistic which includes negative yards lost on sacks (ASU is 11 of 12 in sack yards allowed).
In the category that matters more than any other offensively, ASU is averaging just 29.1 points per game this season. It is a steep drop down from 36.9 points last season, 39.7 in 2013 -- when ASU flirted with a school record through much of the season -- and 38.4 in ASU coach Todd Graham's first season at the school, 2012.
Norvell sees turnovers -- ASU has given the ball up 13 times this season, as many as all of last season in five fewer games -- and missed opportunities -- he cited two drops in the red zone from veteran players, senior wide receiver D.J. Foster and junior tight end Kody Kohl in the Utah game as an example -- as major factors. He also believes there's been a lack of reliably coordinated execution in a way that has been limiting.
"Each week, everybody has got to be pulling on the same rope," Norvell said. "Even in the Utah game, I thought there were some opportunities there. Maybe it's a (running back's) track (being off), maybe it is a (missed) block, maybe it's a (mistaken) read. For this thing to go, you have to have consistency all over the board. You've got to have consistency with how the back tracks, you have to have consistency with double teams up front, and then the team's we're going against, they're [coached up] too and trying to give tougher looks for the guys up front and present challenges. The guys we have up front, I know they can get the job done. Everybody's got to play at a high level and we do need to be more consistent, not only with the guys up front, but really at every position. If we do that, I feel confident about what we can get done and what these guys are capable of."
Wholesale offensive changes aren't going to be initiated, and Norvell's confidence -- at least outwardly -- in the scheme's philosophy remains unwavering. The principles of what ASU is doing this season are the same as those that enabled the impressive offensive production in recent seasons, he said, namely an ability to manage intentionally unblocked defenders with play action threats.
"Part of the game plan each week is to be able to account for the unblocked guys and be able to control them in whatever way possible," Norvell said. "There's times when teams are squeezing the box and we have schemes where we're reading an edge guy or an extra hat (in the box) trying to keep them off our backs. Those are all things we've been doing for a long time. People think just because of the footwork that it's always quarterback option, triple option reads but we've got to control the adjuster and if the adjuster is accounting for the quarterback (and not trying to go for the running back) then we're doing our job right."
Ultimately, Norvell said, ASU is still going to tend to run the ball when it is suggested by the defense that it should, such as when opponents are in two deep safety looks and don't have extra defenders in the box, and try to leverage a numbers advantage with play action principles that prominently include the threat of a quarterback keeper.
"This isn't a triple option offense," Norvell said. "We're trying to go through it to account for things in a way that gives us good numbers. There's times, as you're trying to execute, that we are doing triple option looks. We've got to do a great job of when we do have the box stacked, of winning on the perimeter (at wide receiver), of getting separation and then being able to manage whoever the adjuster (what ASU labels the read defender) is. We're going to do a variety of things, whether that's read option, whether that's double option, where the quarterback has no opportunity to pull and run the ball but just manage it with his arm, and then there's different things like power read where we've got to be able to execute."
It's hard not to see though, a correlation between ASU's rushing success from its quarterback, and it's overall offensive capability. Then-starter Taylor Kelly rushed for 516 yards in 2012 and 608 yards in 2013, which were ASU's best years from a scoring output standpoint. When Kelly got hurt last season and was replaced by Bercovici, ASU still managed to win 10 games on the season even though its offensive numbers dipped a little in a way that seemed to coincide with their combined 272 rushing yards. This season, the scoring productivity has plummeted and Bercovici has 16 net yards rushing (all rushing stats for quarterbacks include negative yards for sacks.)
"Don't get me wrong, any time that you have a quarterback that is another threat in the run game, that's very positive," Norvell said. "In the two games we executed I thought pretty well, Mike was a threat to run the football. Those are things that, if the defense is giving us that, that's great. I don't need a quarterback to be a 4.4 (second 40-yard dash) or 4.5 guy. Now, when things break down and you get some extended plays, that's always hidden yardage that shows up. But for us, it's just about going out there and operating, getting 11 guys and as long as Mike is managing the perimeter, managing the adjusters and things that are happening, I think we're going to be put in good situations with our receivers getting one-on-ones and then whenever we get opportunities we've got to win our one-on-one blocks up front."
That hasn't always worked out so well and it's been a big factor in ASU's offensive struggles. A senior-heavy offensive line with three starters on the interior was expected to buoy the entire offensive unit, and in some big games it hasn't materialized, with Utah a prime example on Saturday. The Sun Devils had just 15 net rushing yards on 28 carries. Leading rusher sophomore Kalen Ballage averaged 2.7 yards per carry and had just 49 yards on 18 attempts.
"I thought up front we were inconsistent in the run game," ASU offensive coordinator Chris Thomsen said. "That created some problems for us, put us in some third and longs. We turned the football over in a critical situation. I said going into the game we needed to run the football and stay in some situations that were more manageable and we didn't get that done. This week the main emphasis for us is going back to fundamentals and trying to get some things cleaned up that we're not doing as well as we'd like to from an execution standpoint.
"It's just some little things in technique and little things add up to big things. We've just got to do a better job. That's what this week is about. We'll look at Oregon a little bit, but really it's about us and making sure we get back on track in the run game. Any time you lose and you don't play well on offense you know as an offensive linemen you probably didn't play as well as you needed to."
The Sun Devils also didn't figure out a way to creatively overcome their run game issues, as Foster had just three catches for 11 yards and one carry in the backfield even with sophomore starter Demario Richard not playing due to a right knee injury. Only one player in the game, senior Devin Lucien, had more than three catches. ASU's run replacement game -- screens, quick throws and fast-action rub routes -- also didn't materialize.
"At times it's been really strong," Norvell said. "That's what UCLA, Colorado, we were able to get a lot of mileage out of on the perimeter. Even some in the earlier games, I think the games we struggled in were games where we didn't get as much done there. Texas A&M, a game we didn't get as much on the perimeter. Obviously the last couple games we weren't as productive as we'd like to be on the perimeter. It all goes hand in hand. If teams are going to stack the box you have to have production on the edge. If teams are going to play two high (safeties), you have to be able to get movement up front. I think there has been progress but we need to keep working to get everyone executing at a high level."