Instant analysis: Explosive plays, failed protection schemes hurt ASU in loss

Arizona State marched out to a 13-0 lead against Utah Thursday night, but the familiar trend of self-inflicted wounds came back to haunt the Sun Devils in a 49-26 loss.

Arizona State started out its Thursday game against Utah up 13-0, and the team's failure to capitalize on its early chances before losing 49-26 was symptomatic of the larger issues the team has at this point in the season.

ASU's offense posted 396 yards, but overall it was a Jeckyl and Hyde performance. The Sun Devils had 27 negative plays out of 79 plays from scrimmage. That is 34 percent of ASU’s plays that went for a loss.

When adding in plays that went for no gain, the total is an astonishing 42 of 79 plays (53 percent) for ASU that either went for no gain or a loss. It only had 30 successful plays in total in the game. You simply are not going to win many games when half of your plays are unproductive no matter how well you do in the other half.

The offensive scheme changed from former coordinator Mike Norvell to Chip Lindsey but the fundamentals did not. Graham has repeated talked about the importance of his offenses limiting negative plays and turnovers. Arguably, protecting the football and moving the offense forward was the most valuable trait that former ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly possessed. Kelly was consistently able to limit the mistakes and take what was given to him. In the last two seasons, ASU has lost that trait from its quarterbacks.

ASU's offensive line, which yielded a FBS season high 11 sacks, will take a lot of the brunt of the criticism for this performance, but the reality is it was the entire offense that was out of sync. The line started the game with three reserves in the lineup and did not protect well. At the same time, sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins held the ball and danced in the pocket too much. Far too often, when his first read was not there, Wilkins either tried to bait pass rushers into missing a sack or took off running. His scrambling in this game was unproductive and borderline reckless. Wilkins rushed 17 times for a net of -42 yards.

Wilkins had a deceiving performance. His stat line of 19 completions on 31 attempts for 309 yards does not look all that bad but not too many people who watched the game would say he played very well.

There were plays to made down the field, and Wilkins missed many of them. On the interception Wilkins threw in the end zone on ASU’s first possession, sophomore tight end JayJay Wilson was wide open in the middle of the end zone but Wilkins' eyes stayed on the outside receiver too long and by the time he set his feet to throw to Wilson, the safety was in position to make the interception.

Wilkins is a first year starter and has shown a lot of potential, but he is banged up physically which to a degree is due to his reckless approach when he runs. At this point it seems like he is simply trying to do too much.

Wilkins' hero-ball approach has filtered around to the rest of the offense. Junior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage both have developed bad habits of going backward to try to make a no gain or short loss into a big play and while it works some of the time, it is losing football in the end.

Ballage, senior Tim White and freshman N'Keal Harry are big time playmakers but the offense would be better served to play a 'take what is given to them' approach instead of constantly trying to create something out of nothing.

Harry continued his impressive freshman season with probably his best game of the year. He had eight receptions for 114 yards, rushed for a 31-yard touchdown on a broken play and completed a 46 yard pass to senior Frederick Gammage.

There is a lot to like about the offensive talent ASU has this year and moving forward. Harry, Ballage, Richard, Wilson are a good foundation of skill players. Wilson in particular played well tonight and seemingly got the most snaps at tight end over senior Kody Kohl. He showed enough for that to continue the rest of the season.

The offensive line, despite its struggles tonight, is young for the most part and has the potential to develop into a good unit. Freshman guard Steve Miller flashed at times in this game. He has the ability to make plays downfield. The unit still has a problem of having too many guys who fit the “would be better at guard” label but among sophomores Sam Jones (who sat out), Quinn Bailey, redshirt freshmen Robertson and Miller and freshman Cohl Cabral, there is talent and athletic ability.

What to do at quarterback the rest of the season is something ASU needs to figure out. Freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole arguably has the highest ceiling of the three quarterbacks who have started this year. He is not a better quarterback than Wilkins right now but would ASU be better served starting him the next two weeks or sticking with Wilkins?  

Next week at Washington is an uphill battle for ASU no matter who starts at quarterback. One can argue you are protecting either Wilkins or Sterling-Cole by not playing them against a stout physical Washington defense. You just as easily could say either should play to get more experience to further their development.

ASU’s primary goal right now is to make a bowl game. Regardless of the bowl and the result, the practice time you get from having a bowl game is invaluable. Barring a stunning upset next week, ASU will have to win in Tucson against Arizona to become bowl-eligible. Wilkins is probably the safest call for Graham to get ASU to six wins but there are no guarantees the Sun Devils get there with Wilkins playing at his current level either. It's not exactly the position we all thought we would be in when ASU was 5-1.

ASU defensively started out well, dominating the first quarter. Utah turned the ball over its first play from scrimmage and had two turnovers in the first five minutes. The Utes finished the first quarter down 13-0 while having 27 total yards, three first downs, zero explosive plays, six negative plays and a 14 percent successful play rate.

From the start of the second quarter onward it was a different story for ASU’s defense. In the final three quarters, Utah’s offense posted 49 points, averaging 10.7 yards per play, 470 yards, 19 first downs, 15 explosive plays, seven negative plays and a 57 percent successful play rate.

What went wrong? Just about everything. ASU played its heavy front with junior Tashon Smallwood playing defensive end and sophomore Joseph Wicker at Devil backer. The unit probably did not play as poorly as the stats suggest but it wasn’t great either. It certainly did not play as well as it did against UCLA when it employed a similar scheme.

ASU inside linebackers really struggled. Granted, the Sun Devils started Alani Latu alongside D.J. Calhoun due to injuries to starters Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam.

Between Fiso and Sam, ASU seemingly entered this year with its strength of the defense being its inside backers but after losing Sam early in the first game of the year and Fiso missing time between suspension and injury, the unit has underperformed.

Calhoun came into ASU as an undersized linebacker who many thought would be probably be sub package player. He has added 30-40 pounds to his frame since he got here but he struggles to play in space and is far from a sure tackler.

The loss of Sam is a bigger factor than probably gets discussed at this point. He is ASU’s best coverage linebacker, he is the best tackler in space the Sun Devils have and is the best NFL prospect on the defense.

Overall, the issue with ASU’s defense is its consistent yielding of big plays. The Sun Devils now have surrendered 15 plays that resulted in a 30-yard touchdown or longer.

How to fix that is something that is hard to pinpoint. ASU is not playing the attacking scheme we saw for most of Graham’s first four years. The Sun Devils are playing more zone coverages and the all-out blitzes are not as prevalent as in the past. On the 62-yard touchdown pass from Utah quarterback Troy Williams to Raelon Singleton, ASU was playing Cover-4 but sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr played a press technique which you typically do not want to do in that type of coverage.

When for whatever reason you can’t play man and can’t play zone, there is not another coverage that is going to just fix things. The question needing to be asked is how did ASU get in this situation? Was it the lack of defensive athletes, particularly in the back end that ASU has brought in?  Is it because the coaches are either failing to coach up the players they have or not putting them in situations to succeed? The answer more than likely that it's an amalgamation of all of those things.

Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson was not at ASU for all of the recruiting misses. He has openly talked about how ASU needs to get more athletes who can cover. At the same time, his defense has not played good football. There are too many mental mistakes being made. Far too often, there are 10 guys playing one technique and one guy playing another. Alignment errors are often talked about in postgame by players and coaches as the reason why big plays happened.

Speculation of firing Patterson and bringing in a new coordinator might stem from the negativity of fans in the offseason but there is no guarantee that pursuing that tactic actually fixes anything.

Graham has slowly deferred more and more to Patterson since he was named defensive coordinator, but at the same time ASU had its best defenses under Graham when he was the running the defense.

Regardless of who is running the defense, for improvement to take place, the recruiting of defensive backs and linebackers needs to get better and the coaching of the defense needs to improve.

There is still a lot of talent in the ASU program but the team needs to play consistently at a higher level. Most predicted this to be a 6-6 type team and despite the injuries the Sun Devils are still on target to hit that mark. However, if 2017 is going to a big year for ASU, there needs to be a lot of improvement on the defensive side.

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