Less than six weeks after Arizona State's "Sparky" formation was unveiled and single-handedly took over the Sun Devils' 68-55 shootout victory over Texas Tech, the team's running attack has sputtered.
In the last three games against USC, UCLA and Colorado, the Sun Devils’ ground attack has combined for a total of 204 yards, an average of only 68 yards per game and 2.46 yards per carry.
With teams continuously loading the box, head coach Todd Graham pointed to the battle at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, where he said Monday ASU is not performing to its standards. Additionally, the play of the Sun Devils' offensive line was critiqued by Graham, who pointed out the unit’s poor job of blocking against the Buffaloes.
Outside of junior running back Demario Richard's 37-yard burst out of the "Sparky" formation, ASU’s rushing attack finished with 13 yards on 27 attempts.
“Well, I think obviously we haven’t blocked very well,” Graham said. “And I think the other teams have played very well. I think it’s been controlling the line of scrimmage, and we’ve just got to get better than what we’re doing. We’ve looked at a lot of different things that we’re going to work on, and the key is to get better. The key is to win football games -- and the key to winning football games is being able to run the football and stop the run on defense. So, that wasn’t something we didn’t do well on either side of the ball, but we’ve just got to go work."
ASU finished Saturday’s performance with only 199 yards of total offense in its 40-16 defeat, by far the lowest total in the Graham era.
The previous low for total yardage came in a 2012 loss against USC in Los Angeles, when the Sun Devils managed just 250 total yards.
"There’s two things we’ve got to do there, we’ve got to learn to take what they give us on the outside, but we’ve just got to block better," Graham said. "That was our big deal. We just didn’t feel like, not looking at any other week, just this week, we’ve got to get better as far as our fundamental technique.”
ASU's offense was hampered by an ankle injury sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins played through against Colorado. With freshmen Dillon Sterling-Cole and Jack Smith lacking important practice experience, Wilkins returned from an ankle sprain suffered against USC just two weeks prior to Saturday's game.
With Wilkins limited, Colorado could key in on the Sun Devils’ running back duo of Richard and junior Kalen Ballage. Richard finished with 10 carries for 59 yards, while Ballage was limited to 14 yards on seven attempts.
Wilkins finished with -31 rushing yards on nine attempts, five of which were sacks that are registered statistically as negative rushing yardage.
A number that stood out from ASU’s trip to Boulder, Colorado was the team's third down efficiency. The Sun Devils were 3-for-18 on third down, a 16.7 percent conversion percentage.
As the Sun Devils look for other ways to get the ground game going with a hobbled Wilkins, they will have to have success with opposing Pac-12 defenses continuously stacking the box and forcing them to be one-dimensional.
ASU has the talent at the running back position to make an impact each Saturday, but the lack of offensive line production is something Graham continued to note on Monday.
The simple errors, both mentally and fundamentally, continue to stand out as Graham looks for an answer to team's running game woes.
“Well, we’ve got to block better,” Graham reiterated. “We’ve just got to give our running backs a chance. We’ve got to do a good job I think not letting them overload us in the box and things like that. We just didn’t execute very well. I think we’ve got backs that are going to run the ball hard. Got three backs that I think have showed great heart and determination. We’ve just got to do a better job blocking and executing and making too many mental errors in fundamental technique.”
Aside from hurting its offensive production, the struggles in the run game put ASU’s defense in a bind. With a rash of injuries that has decimated all levels of the Sun Devils' defense, the lack of depth behind the team's starters against an up-tempo offense proved to be its downfall.
On many occasions, ASU’s defenders were simply gassed, which included senior linebacker Salamo Fiso.
Fiso, who made his season debut after a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules against Cal, was one of the many defenders who had a hard time keeping up with the Buffaloes’ fast-paced style in the altitude.
“He’s (Fiso) still getting in shape,” Graham said. “That’s one of the things we’ve got to work on is our conditioning. I thought that was not good, and the tempo and all of that stuff was fast, but more than anything we played a lot of plays. Played a lot of plays, because we obviously didn’t make a lot of first downs and things like that, but yeah he’s not in playing shape yet.”
That aforementioned lack of depth has put a strain on the linebacking corps, with junior Christian Sam looking unlikely to see the field in the near future due to the lingering effects of an ankle injury suffered in ASU’s season opener against Northern Arizona.
“I don’t think so,” Graham said of if he expects Sam back soon. “Slow improvement, I thought he would be back by now. It’s kind of a strange deal, just moving at turtle’s pace. And that’s hurt us. It hurts our depth. We’re going to have to look at some things there where we can spell some people and stuff like that. Playing too many reps and too many plays.”
News and notes
- Sophomore tight end JayJay Wilson was not with the team Saturday in Boulder. Monday, ASU told SunDevilSource Wilson was suspended for the game due to a team rules violation. His status for Washington State is unknown at this time.
- The special teams group continues to shine as senior Zane Gonzalez was 3-for-3 on field goals Saturday, which included a school record 59-yard kick. That performance notched Gonzalez his fourth Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week Award thus far.
- Punter Matt Haack, who averaged 52 yards on 10 punts Saturday, drew praise from Graham on Monday. Haack is in the midst of a career year, and Graham joked that Haack would have multiple Player of the Week awards without Gonzalez on the team.