Hours before Arizona State began its 2015 season, the Sun Devils learned their offense wouldn’t be at full strength heading into the opener against Texas A&M.
Sophomore running back Kalen Ballage traveled with the team to Houston, but was sent home from Texas prior to the contest and diagnosed with mononucleosis.
After an outstanding spring and a strong fall camp, Ballage drew praise from head coach Todd Graham who expected the running back to be among the Sun Devils’ most improved offensive contributors this year.
The loss of Ballage created an unexpected wrinkle ASU couldn’t sort out against the Aggies, and the significance of his absence through the Sun Devils’ first three games has become increasingly apparent as the season wears on.
At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds prior to his illness, Ballage was supposed to provide the ideal compliment to fellow sophomore tailback Demario Richard, ASU’s workhorse who emerged as the team’s feature back by the end of last season.
“We just have the ability to keep each other fresh,” Ballage said. “When each of us are fresh, we don’t get tied down by being exhausted, and we’re just able to run the ball at will.”
Even with Ballage on the sidelines, ASU believed it could offset his loss early in the season with redshirt junior running back De'Chavon Hayes. Hayes drew rave reviews from the coaching staff during his redshirt season last year after transferring to ASU from Lackawanna College, and the Sun Devils fully anticipated Hayes to slide into the scat-back type role vacated by senior wide receiver D.J. Foster, who changed positions in part to help ASU put its perceived best skill position players on the field at once.
However, the Hayes experiment flopped, and the Sun Devils suffered as a result. ASU rushed for 92 yards on 41 carries in the 38-17 loss to Texas A&M, and Hayes accounted for just six rushing yards on seven attempts.
Ballage missed ASU’s next two games and the Sun Devils continued to lack offensive consistency, but the early-season schedule allowed the program to notch victories over Cal Poly and New Mexico.
Still, with ASU fully committed to Foster playing on the perimeter in the two-receiver position and Hayes’ skillset failing to pan out in the way the Sun Devils anticipated, the team would lack a quality second option in the backfield until Ballage returned.
Though Ballage’s first three games back from injury didn’t produce eye-opening numbers, his assimilation back into ASU’s offense triggered stronger outputs for the Sun Devils’ offense as a whole.
In a 38-23 victory against UCLA, ASU rushed 46 times for 192 yards, including a game-sealing 23-yard touchdown run from Ballage that sealed the win and went viral as the Sun Devils’ collectively rumbled into the end zone.
The Sun Devils improved upon that outing with a 40-attempt, 231-yard rushing effort against Colorado, but the following week, ASU took another step back.
An injury prevented Richard from taking the field against Utah, and for the first time since ASU faced New Mexico, the Sun Devils played without their preferred one-two punch in the backfield.
Against one of the Pac-12’s top rushing defenses, ASU rushed for just 15 yards on 28 attempts and suffered through its worst offensive performance of the season. The loss highlighted the importance of Richard to ASU’s lineup, but also reflected the trend of the Sun Devils needing a pair of capable running backs to shoulder the offensive load.
“It’s very important,” Richard said when asked about having both backs healthy. “You’ve seen what we can do when everybody in the backfield is healthy, it’s important, we just got to win.”
Though ASU didn’t win when Richard and Ballage were reunited in the backfield against Oregon, the Sun Devils finally achieved the offensive balance they had been searching for all season.
In a 61-55 loss in triple overtime, both Richard and Ballage surpassed the 100-yard plateau as the duo combined for 262 yards on the ground. For the first time all season, Ballage appeared to carry his newfound explosiveness and physical rushing style through the course of an entire game, while Richard produced one of his best games of the year.
After a season that began with a strength and weight-zapping bout with mononucleosis, Ballage said he’s finally getting his strength back, which is allowing him the opportunity to try and punish defenders.
“I’m still pretty light on weight, I lost a lot of weight from having mono and stuff like that but I’m back at it,” Ballage said. “I’m not using that as an excuse or anything.”
As for Richard, he’s using the latter half of the season to prove he’s getting stronger with each game.
Richard said he faced a lot of criticism for early-season ball security issues, but he’s determined to atone for his mistakes and will ASU to late-season victories.
“I’ve thought I’ve progressed good, it’s just turning the ball over,” Richard said. “That’s not something that I do. Just a lack of focus, and a lack of a lot of stuff. I’ve progressed more, I don’t see me going into a sophomore slump like other people are saying. I doubt it, I don’t see it.”
After falling against Oregon, ASU began its contest against Washington State determined to establish the run and ride its running backs to a road victory.
Richard carried the ball five times for 53 yards and a touchdown on the Sun Devils’ opening drive, while Ballage became the featured back on ASU’s second series and followed up his counterpart with three carries for 27 yards and a touchdown.
Both running backs said offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has set them up for success by tailoring play calls to their specific strengths. For Richard, ASU’s inside zone scheme is allowing him to see holes and cut on a dime while Ballage is thriving on buck sweep and outside zone plays that test the perimeter of the defense.
“I’ve been thinking inside zone for us,” Richard said. “It may look like a sweep play, but it’s inside zone and we’re just going off of our instincts. But I mean, we’re just out here trying to get it, we tell each other every day, ‘Go get your money,’ so just doing whatever we got to do.
“They’re working very well, you’ve got to be able to run the ball both inside and outside to open up the defense and give them different looks so we’re able to do a lot of different things to get us going."
As successful as ASU has been on the ground in its past two games, the Sun Devils may have cost themselves a chance at wins by abandoning the run too early.
Against Oregon, neither Richard nor Ballage touched the ball in the overtime periods, including on either attempt the Sun Devils had from the three-yard line in triple overtime.
Against Washington State, Richard and Ballage combined for just three fourth quarter carries and 17 rushing yards. While most of ASU’s fourth quarter possession came with the team trailing by at least 10 points, both Richard and Ballage finished the day averaging upward of 6.0 yards per carry.
“I go back and I look at each situation and I look at the position I’m putting my guys in,” Norvell said when asked about play-calling after practice on Wednesday. “The number one thing that you want to do is make sure that you come out victorious, whatever the count. We’re evaluating everything each and every week, doesn’t matter if you win, we evaluate everything.”
With Ballage looking much closer to full health as the season moves along, there’s no question ASU’s offense would have looked different if it had its full compliment of backs healthy from the outset.
Instead, the Sun Devils were forced to adjust their plans, and perhaps became too quarterback-dependent. For a program that believes its offensive identity is founded in its ability to run the football, senior quarterback Mike Bercovici has attempted 370 passes this season, which ranks as the second-highest mark in the Pac-12.
With Foster only recently transitioning back from the perimeter to the slot and ASU having just two straight games of its rushing tandem as healthy as it has been all season, the Sun Devils didn’t find a more optimum recipe for success early enough, and it cost them.
Now, ASU believes it has its pieces in all the right places, and Norvell is happy with the production he’s getting out of the backfield.
“You can’t play in this offense and just have one tailback,” Norvell said. “We’ve got two starters, two guys that can definitely carry the load and I’m excited about how they’re playing.”
Though it’s too little too late for ASU to accomplish its preseason goal of winning the Pac-12, the Sun Devils have plenty to play for over their final three regular season games.
ASU has a homecoming game, Senior Day, the Territorial Cup and a potential bowl game still on the table, and there might be one silver lining the Sun Devils can hang onto down the stretch.
Even as Ballage went down, even as Hayes’s production never materialized, and even as the Sun Devils became more dependent on Bercovici than they would have liked, they never overexposed Richard.
The Pac-12’s fifth leading rusher has at least 22 fewer carries than all four backs in front of him, and at least 50 fewer carries than the conference’s top three rushers.
If the Sun Devils hope to continue feeding the one-two punch it finally has at its disposal, Richard is ready to play the role of the “one” and will his team home.
“I feel stronger every time I get the ball honestly,” Richard said. “I’m not saying that to be cocky or anything. But everybody sees it, every time I get the ball it looks like I’m running harder and harder. So I feel stronger than ever.”