When Arizona State’s offense was on the field on Thursday night against Oregon, the Sun Devils might as well have been wearing their Halloween costumes as opposed to the Pat Tillman-honoring throwback jerseys.
The level of productivity ASU achieved didn’t resemble the type of output the Sun Devils became accustomed to during the season’s first two months, and their sudden rise from the dead forced everyone to do a double-take.
A unit that struggled to pull away from the likes of Cal Poly and New Mexico early in the season hit rock bottom against Utah, when the offense failed to generate a single touchdown.
Most of the troubles ASU experienced throughout the season drifted away against Oregon, as the Sun Devils racked up 742 yards of total offense and tallied 55 points in the triple overtime loss to the Ducks.
On the eve of Halloween weekend, the Sun Devils’ sudden outburst snuck up on the Ducks, much like a ghost appearing out of nowhere.
One look at the stat sheet suggests a handful of different players helped key ASU’s offensive revival, but a deeper look at the Sun Devils’ season reveals the contributions of one player speaks louder than the rest.
Entering play on Thursday, senior wide receiver D.J. Foster was averaging just 66.9 yards from scrimmage per game. That type of production is rather pedestrian for the only FBS player who has more than 2,000 career rushing and receiving yards, but for ASU, Foster’s numbers represented the significant troubles the offense has encountered this season.
Heading into 2015, Foster and the Sun Devils set the bar sky-high, even though this year would be the senior’s first full season playing as a true wide receiver. In past years, Foster served the team as a scat-back type player with the ability to align in the backfield and the slot, but following the loss of Houston Texans third round draft pick Jaelen Strong, Foster transitioned to the perimeter with the hopes of offsetting the loss of production from Strong and fellow 2014 starter Cameron Smith, who is out this season with a knee injury.
Buoyed by the presence of redshirt junior running back De'Chavon Hayes who ASU viewed as a potential weapon in Foster’s former role, the Sun Devils had even more confidence in experimenting with Foster as a full-fledged wide receiver.
But after a four-touch, six-yard output against Utah in mid-October marked Foster’s fifth straight game with fewer than 10 offensive touches, the experiment was clearly a failure.
Through seven games, ASU hadn’t found a way to incorporate Foster’s play-making abilities into the offense effectively, and the Sun Devils decided to start from scratch. Though it took too long to make the change, ASU finally brought Foster back to the slot for Thursday’s game against Oregon in part due to the emergence of junior Tim White on the perimeter and the offense exploded.
“Our backs, they had great production when they got the ball in their hands and those are things we’re continuing to grow on,” offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “Being able to utilize D.J. there and in the slot and in the backfield, those are opportunities to just make sure we’re getting him those times to impact the game.”
Though Foster’s six catches for 89 yards and six rushes for 29 yards represented just 16 percent of ASU’s total offensive output against Oregon, the performance rejuvenated the Sun Devils’ offense and lifted Foster’s spirits.
After struggling to carve out a more prominent role in the offense this season, Foster emphasized his excitement for returning to the slot and continuing to add to his versatility as the season progresses.
“Most definitely, that’s something I kind of did as a freshman and a sophomore so just getting back to that, understanding the plays, I’m still taking what I learned from being out wide,” Fosters said. “They’re still moving me all over the place so just every week, just adding something to my game and continuously learning.”
Foster’s 118 yards from scrimmage marked his best total since an 18-touch, 134-yard effort against Cal Poly that took place when sophomore running back Kalen Ballage was sidelined with mononucleosis.
Against the Mustangs, ASU called on Foster to aid sophomore running back Demario Richardin the backfield and he responded with 12 carries for 76 yards, but since that game, Foster carried the ball more than a single time in just two of ASU’s next five contests.
Foster’s six carries against Oregon represented his second largest share of the season, and his change of pace contributed to a rushing attack that produced 344 yards on the ground.
“I loved how we ran the ball well,” Foster said. “I mean, all the backs, me, Kalen (Ballage), Demario (Richard), everyone did their turn and I thought Demario and Kalen played great. I love seeing them run, they had a great week of practice and they’re starting this week off the same way.”
Foster has caught at least one pass in every single game of his Sun Devil career, and his streak of 48 consecutive games with a reception is tied with USC’s Kareem Kelly for the all-time Pac-12 conference record.
That type of prolific production implies incorporating Foster into the ASU passing game is a critical part of the Sun Devils’ success, but in reality, the more important measure is giving Foster the opportunity to get the ball in his hands.
In bringing Foster back to the slot, ASU put one of its best skill position players back in a role he’s perhaps better suited for, and his resurgent performance backs up the switch.
“I thought it went well. D.J. (Foster) is obviously an extremely versatile player, and I thought we did a good job of giving him opportunities to get the ball in his hand,” Norvell said.
This season, Foster is on pace to touch the ball just 113 times over the course of a 13-game season, which would mark Foster’s lowest total in any of his four seasons in Tempe, besting his previous low of 140 touches on plays from scrimmage his freshman year.
While ASU doesn’t have some of the key skill position players like Marion Grice, Smith and Strong who have prevented defenses from focusing on Foster at different points during his career, the Sun Devils do have the pieces in place to allow Foster to maximize his opportunities.
Richard, Ballage, and White are all players who defenses have to account for on any given play, and that’s why allowing Foster to return to the slot can give ASU situations to take advantage of his skillset against linebackers and safeties.
“It definitely helps, getting (junior tight end) Kody (Kohl) out of the game and me playing that slot receiver role, I’m on linebackers and safeties as well as motioning into the backfield and I think it can add a lot to the offense,” Foster said. “I think it showed. And it’s not just that, we were moving a lot of guys and switching off.”
The experiment as an outside receiver was not a complete failure in Foster’s eyes, because he gained a better understanding for how to navigate routes.
By training as a wide receiver, Foster was forced to improve his route discipline, coverage assessment, and blocking, and those are all skills he believes will make him a more effective player in the slot in his final collegiate games.
“You can see different coverages and I can definitely read the defense a lot better from seeing it from a wideout’s perspective so it’s helping a lot,” Foster said.
Heading into the final month of the season, Foster believes his most productive games as a senior are still ahead of him, and he’s pushing to extend his days as a Sun Devil by helping ASU become bowl eligible.
The Sun Devils never expected to be 4-4, and Foster never expected to spend his final season searching for a way to fit into an offense that has relied on his skillset so frequently over the last three season.
Nevertheless, the team and its captain understand the situation that lies ahead, and Foster knows he’ll need to build off his outing against Oregon if he wants to keep ASU’s bowl hopes alive.
“We understand how tough it is and we understand it sucks, but we’ve got to keep playing,” Foster said. We’ve got four games and we can’t look back, we need to keep going forward and I think our guys are doing a great job.”