While Arizona State tallied 55 points, gained a season-high 742 yards of offense, and ran 108 plays against the Oregon Ducks on Thursday night, many fans will only remember its offensive futility in the game's final moments.
The Sun Devils arrived at the three yard line of Oregon with 344 rushing yards in the game but would get no more. They didn't run the ball again.
Consecutive failed passes by senior quarterback Mike Bercovici, the second of which was intercepted in the end zone, dashed ASU's hopes in the triple overtime 61-55 loss.
Bercovici’s first pass attempt intended for junior wide receiver Tim White was dangerously contested, and the next, also intended for White, was caught but not by a Sun Devil. Immediately following the game there was an outpouring of frustration with ASU's play calling in the situation, with offensive coordinator Mike Norvell bearing the brunt of it.
Speaking with the media on Wednesday, Norvell said both plays at the end of the game were run-pass options and Oregon’s defense just executed well on the first and goal attempt and ASU failed to execute on the second. Bercovici said Wednesday based on what he saw from Oregon's defense on the field, the pass options were correct, with the second of the two throws debatable as to where the ball should have been thrown between Foster and Lucien.
“Watching Oregon, they were a team that down inside the five (yard line) they would do one of two things,” Norvell said. “They were either going to play a bracket zone type of zone coverage, removing some guys in the secondary, or they were going to play man. The first touchdown we had to (senior wide receiver) Devin (Lucien) earlier in the game was off the first play call (in triple overtime) and they did a good job of defending it and then we came back with the second (attempt) with (senior wide receiver) D.J. (Foster) in the slot. We gave the run-pass option and we just didn’t execute very well.”
On Lucien’s touchdown reception in the second quarter Oregon was in man defense from the same distance, so Norvell used this knowledge – hoping to get the same result – to run a similar concept on first and goal in triple overtime. Only this time, Oregon's players defended it better.
For ASU’s second and goal from the three-yard line – with the play still a run-pass option – ASU put Foster in the slot, but instead of targeting Foster on a rub route – or handing the ball off – Bercovici instead elected to throw to White and ended up throwing the interception. White seemed to not locate the ball until it was past him and perhaps didn't even know it was coming in the first place. Neither player appeared open on review of the game.
“Every scenario that we get down there (red zone), I got a specific plan of what we want to try to accomplish,” Norvell said. “Obviously we have to do a great job of executing and I got to put our guys in the position to be successful."
ASU's final possession wasn't its only missed opportunity in the red zone as its offense failed to score twice from inside the 20 and on two other occasions only managing field goals. ASU’s latest red zone inefficiency against Oregon was just one of many the Sun Devils have encountered this season. Through eight games, ASU ranks No. 10 in the Pac-12 in red zone offense, scoring 32 out of 39 times with 21 touchdowns.
Missed opportunities have been ASU’s downfall in the red zone and Norvell said the biggest frustration and disappointment is the offensive penalties.
Against Oregon, one of the more glaring errors came when ASU had a second and goal from the Oregon five-yard line in the first quarter and Lucien had a false start, backing up Bercovici and the offense to the 10-yard line.
When ASU failed to score a touchdown on its next two plays, junior kicker Zane Gonzalez came out to try and make a 26-yard field goal, but instead missed far left.
“When we’re down there (red zone) and I think last week we were second and five or first and five and we get a penalty that backs us up and puts us in a little longer yardage situation,” Norvell said. “You can’t have those mistakes, you can’t have dropped passes, you can’t have [missed assignment]’s down there.”
But while missed opportunities plagued the Sun Devils against Oregon, Norvell saw a handful positives coming out of the loss as would be expected in light of the huge amoung of yards piled up by his offense.
Norvell said most of the play calls going into the fourth quarter and into overtime were “option plays with run opportunities” and as Oregon started to key in on ASU sophomore running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, Bercovici did a good job of pulling the ball more and making plays with his feet.
Bercovici finished the night with 78 yards on the ground and scored an 18-yard rushing touchdown in the second overtime period.
“I thought Mike did a great job of managing the run game with the spots on the perimeter pulling the ball, being a threat as a runner,” Norvell said. “The backs had great production when they got the balls in their hands so I think those are all things we are continuing to grow on.”
But was ASU’s game against Oregon a stepping-stone for better offensive production headed into the Sun Devils’ final month of the season?
Norvell seems to be fairly optimistic about that.
“The thing I’m excited is it (the offense’s productivity) is carrying over this week,” Norvell said. “Another really good week of practice so far. When you prepare at eye level, you’re putting yourself in a position to go out and make plays.”