Arizona State might not have come out flat against West Virginia in the Cactus Bowl but it certainly was not sharp to start the game and neither the players nor the coaches really seemed to find their footing in a 43-42 loss Saturday night at Chase Field.
The 2015 Sun Devils’ pass defense arguably had been the worst in the country and it lived up to the reputation in this game. Mountaineer quarterback Skyler Howard threw for a Cactus Bowl record 532 yards and five touchdowns.
Seniors defensive backs Kweishi Brown and Solomon Means had rough nights. Brown was repeatedly beaten by West Virginia receivers. Means who did not start played field safety and corner and struggled as well.
ASU’s front seven didn’t do very much to help its defensive backs. The Sun Devils entered the game with the highest sack per game averaged (3.67) in the country but only sacked Howard one time through three quarters and finished the game with two sacks on over 50 drop backs for West Virginia.
The Sun Devil offense looked like a team that just lost its offensive coordinator, which it did after Mike Norvell took over as head coach at Memphis ASU went three and out on its first three possessions of game, only gaining only a total of 13 yards on its first nine plays from scrimmage.
The defense, in particular the red zone defense, kept the game close while the offense found its footing. West Virginia had to settle for three field goals on its first three trips into the redzone in the first quarter.
Still it was a very bad performance overall for the defense. West Virginia 676 total yards, 29 first downs and 23 explosive plays. The Mountaineers were only six for 16 on third downs but managed to convert a third and 22 on the ground on the game winning drive in the fourth quarter.
The main overriding issue which carried through the offense, defense and special teams was coaching. This might be the worst coached game ASU has turned in under Todd Graham. It is not really clear who was the offensive play caller. After the game Graham said quarterback Mike Bercovici was essentially the offensive coordinator but it seemed like at least the plays were coming from the booth were tight ends coach Chip Long was sitting. Overall ASU did not lose because of the offense. It put up 42 points, 520 yards, 23 first downs, 15 explosive plays and zero turnovers despite the slow start and still lost the game.
Bercovici was solid. He completed 29 of 52 attempts for 418 yards with four touchdowns. Senior Devin Lucien had another impressive game, finishing with nine receptions for 144 yards and score. The duo really came on as the season progressed to be one of the better quarterback/receiver tandems nationally.
The defense tried some different personnel and coverages because of injury. Marcus Ball started at spur and we saw D.J Calhoun also play there later on in the game. Chad Adams and Means rotated a field safety. De’Chavon Hayes played relatively well at cornerback and really should have replaced Brown at field corner at some point.
Graham said they tried to pressure less and play some Cover-3 but that did not go very well. Many people might disagree but maybe blitzing more and leaving the defensive backs on islands would have worked better in this game. ASU didn’t generate the pressure it has done consistently this year and trying to play more zone coverage was a failure.
Junior Tim White had a huge game, especially on special teams where he had 210 return yards. He had 289 all-purpose yards, an ASU bowl record, and two scores on the night. ASU had the advantage on special teams in the game, junior Zane Gonzalez set another ASU bowl record with four field goals but missed a 40-yard field goal in the first half which came back to haunt ASU.
Special teams were not immune to the coaching breakdowns. ASU had ten players out on one it's punts. It inexplicably had to call a timeout in the second half before a kickoff. After the game Graham said that was because they were going to try an onsides but did not have the right personnel on the field.
The most glaring coaching error was after ASU scored to go ahead 41-36 with 4:56 left to play. ASU should have gone for two points but elected to kick the extra point. After the game Graham took the blame for not going for two but his explanation was unclear and seemed to put a spotlight on the unclear structure surrounding ASU’s offensive coaches in the game. You have to assume if Norvell was coaching the game for ASU that they would have gone for two points.
Graham took responsibility after the game for the loss as well as the blame for the five games ASU lost this season despite leading in the fourth quarter. This off-season will be different for Graham. His consistently over the top positive rhetoric about his team will probably not play as well to fans as it has the past three years. He has lost his right hand man in Norvell and will have to face other changes to his staff. Compounding matters he will have break in a new starting quarterback.
While finding a new quarterback will have a lot of media attention and potential drama, ASU has recruited the position well and should be able to find a productive option. It will be made more difficult with the departure of Norvell. The offensive personnel and coaching staff will both look much different in 2016. In addition to Bercovici, ASU loses D.J. Foster, Lucien and four starting offensive linemen. On defense it loses starters such as Jordan Simone, Lloyd Carrington and Antonio Longino and that means losing a lot of on the field leadership and playmaking ability.
Moving forward it remains to be seen if ASU’s identity under Graham is that of the team which is 29-3 when leading at halftime or of the team which blew five fourth quarter leads. 2016 will be the first ASU team Graham has had that will be comprised of all of his recruits. The team will be young, talented but inexperienced and it's hard to say right now how much better, if at all better, next year’s team will be than this year’s. One thing we do know Graham’s most difficult off-season just started.