Eve Craig/SunDevilSource

Ten Takeaways: Moeakiola move to Spur keys Arizona State comeback win over UTSA

Arizona State made several key defensive changes early in the second half of its 32-28 win over UTSA that proved to be a big difference in the game's outcome.

1. When healthy, the player who has best fulfilled the role of Spur in Todd Graham's four-plus year tenure at Arizona State is Laiu Moeakiola. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils and Moeakiola, he has often not been totally healthy, with shoulder problems being particularly limiting during the past couple seasons. Following a second surgery in December, ASU coaches decided they'd try to play Moeakiola at Bandit more this season, where he'd be further from the line of scrimmage and have less physical wear and tear. They also figured it was a way to get their best players on the field, with Bandit being an otherwise questionable position from a talent standpoint and junior Marcus Ball looking like a solid option at Spur.

In the second half against UTSA Graham and ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson decided to abandon that plan and move Moeakiola to Spur in place of Ball, and insert junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes at Bandit. It proved to be as important and successful as any decision they made in the game. The move followed a 24-yard touchdown pass from UTSA quarterback Dalton Sturm to h-back Shaq Williams that put the Roadrunners up 28-12 with 8:20 left in the third quarter. On that play, Williams ran a wheel route that Ball didn't quickly enough identify because of other action designed to distract his eye discipline. 

Ball led ASU in game with seven tackles but UTSA was picking on him all game with passes to its running backs and h-backs into the flat or on wheel routes out of the backfield to the perimeter. He made seven tackles in part because he was able to be targeted to begin with. UTSA running back Jarveon Williams led the Roadrunners with five catches for 81 yards and Shaq Williams had two for 37 yards and a touchdown. All told, 11 of UTSA's 19 receptions in the game were by running backs and tight ends, most of which came to the perimeter or on screens, with a focus on targeting ASU's linebacker level, particularly Ball and junior D.J. Calhoun, who has improved substantially in this regard but is still going to at times be challenged to cover smaller players on some routes, as a 235-pounder.

Moeakiola is lighter and rangier than Ball, and sees plays develop very quickly. He's also a good tackler in space and physical enough to play the position well when healthy, as he appeared Friday despite being limited this year with a hamstring strain. That's why he's a good Spur, which is a very demanding role. Once Moeakiola was in the game at Spur, UTSA punted went three-and-out four times in a row, and on its only other possession, it turned the ball over on downs to end the game. On its final 18 plays from scrimmage, UTSA had just 22 net yards.

2. Moving forward, ASU coaches will have a tough decision with regard to how they decide to play Moeakiola. The play of Rhodes in the second half at Bandit might make it an easier one. Undersized junior Chad Adams started the season at Bandit but is a marginal player there and ultimately wasn't hardly seen on the field for the UTSA game. The Sun Devils put so much pressure on the Spur and WILL positions to carry running backs in man coverage down the field and it's almost too much to ask all but the most mobile linebackers to do. Opponents have targeted ASU in this regard throughout the Graham era. It's not just running backs that are an issue here though, as the Spur and WILL have to close out to the flat on a lot of coverages in the ASU scheme. The Air Raid and spread bubbles to the flat are also a challenge, particularly at Spur. 

With ASU playing Cal this week, an Air Raid team that does a great job of lateral wide receiver routes and rub concepts working toward the boundary, there is more of a need to have a fleet, quick-read defender at Spur, and also a greater need to have more of a coverage player at Bandit. As a result, even if starting linebackers Salamo Fiso (suspension) and Christian Sam (ankle) return for Cal, we may not see a lot of those two players on the field at the same time as Calhoun. That's really more of a look we would expect against teams more on the pro-style end of the spectrum. 

3. One of the things ASU did reasonably well against Texas Tech was spy its mobile quarterback Patrick Mahomes in order to keep him from getting out of the pocket and beating the Sun Devils with his legs. Against UTSA, Graham said he knew that quarterback Dalton Sturm would be a threat in a similar way. After the game Graham said quarterback designed runs and scrambles would be the biggest challenge. Even so, the Sun Devils inexplicably weren't focused on spying Sturm with its inside linebackers in the first half of the game, and he made them pay for the decision. Ultimately, it was only Sturm who had any success running against ASU, doing so to the tune of 82 yards on 15 carries with one touchdown, a 34 yard scamper on the first drive of the third quarter, which capped a five play, 92-yard drive. Following that play, ASU began keeping its inside linebackers focused more on Sturm's running, and it worked. After that touchdown run he had a negative net rushing yards the rest of the game. ASU's adjustments defensively probably came later than they should have, but performed very well when implemented. 

4. There were too many missed tackles in the game by the Sun Devils, including and perhaps especially when they had Sturm seemingly dead to rights in the backfield. He turned at least a handful of plays that should have gone down as a sack into positive yard plays and even first downs. While mobile, Sturm is neither a freak athlete nor a a big player at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, and he shouldn't have been as difficult to bring down for ASU as he proved to be. The Sun Devils had four sacks in the game, but that easily could have been twice as many. Sophomore Joseph Wicker hasn't had many chances so far this year, but got 1.5 sacks against the Roadrunners and even so, missed another couple opportunities. There were a number of examples of open field tackles that were just missed. 

5. ASU's overall passing defense in its secondary was pretty good. Wide receivers had just eight catches on the night including just one catch by Kerry Thomas Jr., who last year set a UTSA record with 54 catches on the season. A week after having two second-half interceptions against Texas Tech, senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes had an impressive effort against another Texas opponent, UTSA. Graham said Hayes was "unbelievable" on defense in man coverage as ASU largely put him on an island as it ramped up pressure in a more aggressive approach to attacking the Roadrunners than either NAU or Texas Tech (in the first half of that game). Sophomore safety Armand Perry -- second in the game with six tackles -- and sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr also played well. Backup senior cornerback Bryson Echols was the only defensive back who gave up any reception longer than 12 yards and nobody was running behind the ASU defense on the night. UTSA had just 229 yards passing, a lot of which came with the Spur and WILL defending. 

6. With senior Tim White limited due to an ankle injury suffered against Texas Tech, the Sun Devils almost imploded on punt return. In the first half junior running back Kalen Ballage inexplicably attempted to field a punt in traffic that had bounced high and he had to reach for. He didn't come close to securing it and UTSA recovered at the 14 yard line, where it needed just three plays to score a touchdown and take a 14-3 lead. Ballage returns kickoffs for ASU but had never returned punts. After that mistake, ASU used Hayes as the punt return man but in the third quarter he got a late jump on a short punt and tried it field it off his shoestrings only to fail and have the Roadrunners recover it at the ASU 24. They scored a touchdown on the ensuing play to make it 28-12, and force the Sun Devils to mount their second biggest road comeback win of the last 20 years. Ultimately, ASU's coaches need to put a player on the field who can at the very least not turn the football over with bad decisions. Ballage and Hayes couldn't do it and perhaps shouldn't have been called on to replace White in the role, as a result. Teams rarely break punt returns for a long gain. The important task is not to have a huge mistake. After the second gaffe, White played for the first time in the game and caught the rest of the punts without a hitch. 

7. The play of senior kicker Zane Gonzalez was nothing shy of excellent, and essential in ASU's 32-28 win. After the Sun Devils bogged down offensively just inside of scoring range on multiple occasions in the first half, Gonzalez was called upon to put points on the scoreboard. He became the first player in ASU history to make two 50-plus yard field goals in a game, doing so with two 54-yarders in the first half alone. He also made a 45-yarder and missed from 53-yards. Many if not most kickers either wouldn't have the range from 54 yards to attempt those kicks -- even in a dome -- or would miss more often than not. Gonzalez had nine of ASU's points on field goals of 45 yards or longer in a game it won by four points. He's also perhaps the best kickoff weapon in the country. UTSA returned two, one from the back of the end zone that it didn't get past its 10 yard line. Gonzalez broke the Pac-12 record for career points and tied the ASU record with 81 field goals. 

8. Especially in the first half, sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins looked more like the inexperienced first-year starter he is in his first road start than he did a week earlier against a dismal Texas Tech defense. UTSA did a good job disguising its pressures while playing press man coverage on the perimeter and Wilkins had some mistakes with his decision-making and accuracy as a result. The Roadrunners were giving up some big play opportunities in man coverage on the perimeter, with freshman N'Keal Harry and junior Cameron Smith getting behind the defense on multiple occasions.  Wilkins was either underthrowing or overthrowing the ball though more often than not. He did hit Harry for a long touchdown but it was negated due to an ASU offensive linemen who was guilty of a hands to the face penalty. There was also a bad interception, on a deep fade attempt for Smith in which Wilkins didn't see there was a deep single high zone safety presenting a closed middle of the field (Smith should have also been more physical at the ball's arrival). But Wilkins hit Harry on a nice throw for a touchdown at the end of the first half, so there were some big play connections. But ASU could have had 3-4 long touchdown bombs in the game that it didn't convert on. Wilkins was just 8 of 19 for 130 yards in the first half, but went 6 of 12 in the second half for 134 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions. 

9. N'Keal Harry continues to make a huge impression in his first year as a Sun Devil. He became just the second player in ASU history to have a touchdown in his first three career games, joining D.J. Foster with that distinction. Harry's catch at the end of the first half was hauled in (mostly) with his left hand and arm, as his right arm was being held by the defensive back until he could get it free to secure the ball as he was going to the ground. Harry finished with five catches for 78 yards and a touchdown, but had what would have been his longest catch of the night and another touchdown called back due to an offensive penalty. At this point, Harry has clearly become one of ASU's top two receiving targets at wide receiver along with the injured White. 

10. ASU's rushing attack is proving to wear on opponents as games unfold this season. Junior Demario Richard had eight carries in the first half for 38 yards but was punishingly physical inside in the second half, when he carried 14 addition times for 57 more yards as the offense recovered. Ballage had an additional eight carries in the second half for 41 yards. Even though the Sun Devils scored 20 unanswered points in the second half comeback and had scoring drives of 37, 40, 68 and 58 yards, Wilkins was only needed to throw the ball 12 times. That's 22 carries by the running backs and 12 throws by Wilkins in a second half which saw ASU trailing 28-12 with 8:20 left in the third quarter. That's an impressive feat, even against a program like UTSA.

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