Opposing Views: Arizona State

Has a runaway bride of a head coach found a long-term home in Tempe? Who will Arizona State start at quarterback this week? Why couldn’t Bruce Snyder build something resembling staying power there? Some questions demand thorough answers, which Hod Rabino of Devils Digest provided in this week’s Opposing Views.

The Bootleg: Winning on a Hail Mary, against USC no less? If we could all be so lucky. Talk about that play as it unfolded, your viewpoint, and your reaction. Also, put the game in the context of what happened the previous week. Given the blowout loss that occurred against UCLA, how much did the overall effort against the Trojans surprise you, aside from the final play?

Hod Rabino: We all know that quarterback Mike Bercovici was able to sling the ball 40-plus yards with no problem, but obviously so many things have to go right in a Hail Mary play. The throw was short, even though (a) Bercovici wasn’t under extreme duress and (b) there wasn’t a swarm of ASU receivers waiting for that ball. Later on we heard reports of confusion among the USC camp as to what defensive unit should have been out there. But the way the ball was thrown, I don’t know if many of us thought the play would end well.

The beauty of it was how Jaelen Strong tracked the ball perfectly and didn’t have to be in a mosh pit of players trying to go for a jump ball.

Undoubtedly, after a demoralizing loss to UCLA, ASU needed to beat USC in the worst way to salvage its season. Even though chances are good a 6-3 conference record will be enough to win the Pac-12 South, you can ill afford to have two league losses in the first week of October. I thought offensively ASU did a great job in their passing game, though the USC defense imposed its will shutting down ASU’s rushing attack. I don’t know if ASU can get away again with winning a game with a virtually one-dimensional offense. Defensively, it looked better than it did against UCLA and ASU did play well in the fourth quarter, but there is still a lot to be shored up on that side of the ball.

TB: Who’s going to play quarterback this week? Talk about the unique skills Bercovici possesses. What’s his story? What can he do that Taylor Kelly cannot, and vice versa? [Ed: Kelly injured his foot against Colorado on Sept. 13 and hasn’t played since.]

HR: Unless Taylor Kelly heals at a rate faster than expected over the next few days, I’m expecting Mike Bercovici to start, but I can’t rule out Kelly seeing time as a reserve. The 2014 campaign was supposed the third (and last) year Bercovici was going to be a reserve quarterback, but the junior is playing like anything but a backup the last couple of contests.

Bercovici is a deft passer. There really isn’t any throw he can’t make. Nonetheless, ever since he started at quarterback, opposing defenses have done a solid job shutting down ASU’s running backs. Unlike Kelly, Bercovici isn’t as mobile and the read option offense runs at a higher rate of efficiency under Kelly. Conversely, even prior to his foot injury, I thought Kelly was doing just a fair job throwing the ball and he clearly isn’t as good as Bercovici in that department. Ball security is an aspect that has hindered Bercovici (as opposed to Kelly) many times, but he had zero turnovers against USC.

TB: Stanford and ASU last saw each other in on the same field 10 months ago. What’s changed for the Sun Devils since then? How does this team’s 2014 performance compare with your expectations coming into the season?

HR: On defense, this squad is simply night-and-day from 2013 as they lost nine starters, six of them All-Pac 12 players. The inexperience factor has hindered this unit quite a bit thus far this season.

On offense, you divide the season between the four games Kelly started and the two Bercovici was at the helm. With Kelly behind center, ASU rushed for over 300 yards a game but the passing game was just average. Under Bercovici, the passing game was the most explosive it’s ever been under Todd Graham but the Sun Devils were having a hard time maintaining their success on the ground.

TB: Your defense – which has allowed over 90 points in its two conference games – may have its issues, but Stanford is no offensive juggernaut either. How does the group match up with a team like the Cardinal, which lacks the power run game of years past but still possesses capable downfield receiving threats, especially in the tight end position (something lacking last year)?

HR: Saturday is shaping up as an ironic matchup in this regard. In 2013 ASU boasted what was clearly one of the best defenses ever in recent memory, but never had an answer to Stanford’s physicality on offense. As mentioned, this season the Sun Devils have taken a big step back on this side on the ball but are facing a Stanford offense that is seemingly not of the same caliber of last season. Maybe they dodge a bullet here after having fits with both UCLA and USC.

The ASU defense has clearly struggled against the run, so if Stanford continues to have issues in that aspect (although they had no problems versus Washington State), then this could really help a young front four. Kevin Hogan has played very well against Arizona State in the past, so you wonder if that trend reoccurs this weekend. ASU’s pass rush leaves much to be desired, but the secondary has generally played well this year. If ASU can make Stanford a one-dimensional offense and shut down the Cardinal’s running game, I like the home team’s chances.

TB: Todd Graham: Carpetbagger waiting for his next gig, or in it for the long haul? What are his strengths and weaknesses as a head coach?

HR: Quite frankly, the talk about Graham leaving ASU anytime soon has jumped the shark, if you will. Just a few weeks ago, he donated $500,000 towards Sun Devil Stadium renovations (as did ASU’s athletic director Ray Anderson). If that doesn’t squelch any talk about Graham not being here for the long haul, I don’t know what will.

For the most part, every time Graham moved from one job to another, he did so for a better opportunity. That gets lost in the narrative about the Sun Devils’ head coach. Yes, there are better jobs out there than ASU’s, but you also have to keep in mind Graham knows he put his family through hell for the one year he was in Pittsburgh. Now that he lives close to his in-laws, that’s the last thing he has to worry about. And as all of us married men know, a happy wife equals a happy life. [The in-laws live in metro Phoenix.]

Graham has really galvanized the community here, making several hundred public appearances in the Valley ever since taking the job before the 2012 season. He talks the big talk, but also delivers on over 90 percent of his vision. He has changed a team culture that was badly in need of reform. The evidence is on the field (minimal penalties) and off (virtually no police incidents).

His demanding style is obviously one that can backfire at times. He walks a fine line this season in implementing a very complex defense to a very inexperienced group of players. The results haven’t always been positive, although it appears to be trending in the right direction these days.

TB: ASU has no shortage of built-in advantages to make it an attractive program: talented in-state recruits, party school reputation, large local fanbase. Why hasn’t it become an elite program? Six different teams have won Pac-10/12 titles since that magical 1996 season. Was the late Bruce Snyder and the athletic administration he served the biggest culprits, for their failure to build on that? Or does the blame lie somewhere else, and go back further? Would you call ASU football, given all its blessings, an “underachiever?”

HR: Everyone here talks about awakening the proverbial “sleeping giant” in Tempe. I feel right now under Todd Graham, that goal is closer than ever to being achieved. Snyder was a solid a coach, and it’s just too bad he and his staff got “fat and happy” after that 1997 Rose Bowl. They were extremely lazy in recruiting. They thought the program would recruit itself. Just four years after being named national coach of year, he lost his job after he underachieved quite a bit in his last few years in Tempe [Snyder fell just one game short of a return trip to Pasadena in 1997, but ASU never again finished over .500 in three more seasons under his watch.]

ASU rolled the dice with Dirk Koetter, whose stubbornness in his staff selections and willingness to leaving the defense in incapable hands signaled his demise. The Sun Devils thought they caught lighting in the bottle with Dennis Erickson, who led ASU to a Pac-10 co-championship in 2007. But that turned out to be a painful aberration as he let the inmates (his players) run the asylum, while his recruiting approach was well below average.

Graham’s approach has captivated the community at-large, both local high school coaches in and the ASU fans who grew disenchanted with the program for years. Consequently, the level of support, especially the financial kind, is at an all-time high. So the underachiever status ASU has “enjoyed” for the most part since 1996-‘97 is starting to become more and more a thing of the past.

TB: A lot of Stanford fans have a soft spot for Snyder. He was a gracious guy who never beat the Cardinal in five tries with the Golden Bears (bonus) and set California back years when he bolted Berkeley for Tempe (triple-bonus). Is he a sympathetic figure down there?

HR: Wow. Never knew about his record versus Stanford. Yes, for the most part Snyder is revered as one of only two ASU coaches to take the Sun Devils to the Rose Bowl. His passing in 2009 was mourned quite a bit by the ASU community.

TB: What are the “can’t-miss” game-day weekend experiences for a visiting fan?

HR: I can’t say that ASU has much of a game-day experience, but as an out-of-towner I would definitely check out Mill Avenue and the bevy of restaurants and bars they have there, as well as Tempe Town Lake, which is adjacent to Mill Avenue. If you feel like taking a fairly short hike, you can climb A Mountain, overlooking the stadium. Four Peaks Brewing Company, just east of campus, is another popular spot.

TB: The best player in ASU history is…?

HR: If I’m strictly going by college career achievements, I would have to give it to Terrell Suggs. He set an NCAA single-season record with 24 sacks in 2002. He won the Lombardi Award, the Nagurski Trophy and earned unanimous first-team All-American honors. If were to do the Mount Rushmore of greatest ASU players I would probably have Danny White, Mike Haynes and Pat Tillman joining Suggs up there.

TB: The greatest moment in ASU history (since joining the Pac-10 in 1978) is…?

HR: Probably a tie: Winning the 1987 Rose Bowl versus Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, a game where no one gave ASU a chance, and the 19-0 blanking of two-time defending national champion Nebraska in 1996, another improbable win not only considering the opponent but also the manner in which victory was achieved.

TB: In the Bay Area, the sports hierarchy is as follows: 49ers, Giants, Warriors, A’s, Sharks…while Cal and Stanford fall well short in marquee value. Cal has a way bigger following, given its larger alumni base. In the Phoenix area, where does ASU compare to the local pro teams? How has that changed over the years, especially since the Sun Devils joined the Pac-10 and more pro teams migrated your way?

HR: If Phoenix isn’t the most transplanted metro area in the nation, it’s certainly in the top five, which obviously translates to a bandwagon fan-town in the worst way.

In recent years, ASU would usually draw better than all pro sports if it was winning, aside from the Arizona Cardinals. For the most part, all teams in the Valley have pretty fickle fans. Even though I believe some of the Cardinals’ sellouts are “manufactured,” they don’t have the up-and-down attendance ASU has. Without a doubt, the Cardinals’ arrival has hurt ASU’s attendance. Now, once the Sun Devil Stadium renovations are completed in 2017 and capacity is reduced to 60,000, it will be interesting to see how that improves attendance.

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