1. How has the defense truly looked through three games, breaking in all those new starters?
It definitely has been a mixed bag of goods the first three weeks. In the season opener against FCS opponent Weber State, the starters pitched a shutout which is what you would expect against such an opponent of that caliber but the reserves played literally the entire second half and were average. Then ASU faced a triple option team in New Mexico where it did struggle at times to figure out the scheme but pitched another shut out, this time is the second half.
Last week in the Pac-12 opener at Colorado the defense gave up 545 yards, the most it had under Todd Graham and suffice to say that this was far from expected against a team such as the Buffaloes. On the other hand it gave up a total of 24 points, just 10 in the second half, and forced six turnovers, three of them on downs. Thus, this unit had a lot of bright spots as well.
So the roller coaster performance of this group can definitely be attributed to its inexperience. It’s truly a bend but not break defense giving just 20 points a game and ranked in the Top 25 in red zone defense, but the final stat sheet from each game this year does shows chunks of yards given up both on the ground and in the air. I do see the strength of this defense in its secondary, but again there have been several plays in the first three weeks where it has been exposed.
2. What's your assessment of Mike Bercovici, and how will the offense change with him at the helm?
Because of the limited game reps he has received in his first two seasons at ASU in many ways it is hard to truly assess how well he will do as a first time starter. He is a better passer than Taylor Kelly and does well with his progressions. He’s definitely not as mobile as Kelly but has improved leaps and bounds in that area. At times he does force throws into tight areas and doesn’t always get away with that. He has been hot and cold in game situations, but could play more settled down now that he will have nearly two weeks to get ready for his first significant action of his career.
I don’t think the scheme will drastically change with Bercovici as a starter. He can run the zone read with fairly good efficiency and again his improved mobility should help here. He has a very good running game to lean on, but I don’t expect the pass-run distribution to be significantly different than other games because this is still an offense that thrives on creativity. You’ll probably see different routes in the passing game that he can execute better than Kelly and perhaps the ball with be distributed to a larger number of receivers.
3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current coaching staff, in the eyes of the fan-base?
There’s no doubt that the program has pretty much turned on a dime every since Todd Graham and his staff arrived here after the 2011 season. The change in team culture and the shift to a more disciplined team on and off the field has been well documented and has paid dividends on many levels. The staff installed a very attractive and aggressive scheme on both sides of the balls that was able to grant instant success and help quite a bit with recruiting as evident with the 2014 class being one of the best in school’s history. All in all, even the most optimistic ASU fan could not have predicted that a virtual unknown like Graham who had only one year of head coaching experience at a major conference (at Pitt) would rack up 18 wins and a Pac-12 South championship in his first two years in Tempe.
Special teams have been the biggest deficiency of this squad the last couple of years and it isn’t doing all that great so far in 2014. The defense at times can be overly aggressive in its schemes and that hasn’t always served the Sun Devils well. In-state recruiting has been an issue the last couple of classes although it fairness to this staff that had to re-build a lot of relationships that were all but decimated with key local high school programs by the previous staff. Nonetheless, the outlook in this area is promising.
4. Is there a sense that UCLA has become Arizona State's main rival (aside from Arizona) in the conference?
Very ironic that UCLA fans are asking that question because it has come up a lot among ASU fans the last few days. Absolutely, UCLA is the biggest Pac-12 out of state rival for ASU. Ever since the Pac-12 South these have been the two teams that have battled in very close games to determine the division championship, a title that hasn’t been held by any another program aside from this duo. No one would be shocked the winner of this game, albeit played in September, will once again be crowned Pac-12 South champion. The two schools are also engaged in a lot of recruiting battles which only heightens the rivalry.
5. Does Todd Graham cut his own hair? If yes, what kind of knife does he use?
Yes he does which is a very efficient use of his time as someone who lives an extremely busy life. No, there are no knives involved but rather trimmers and even if you are a staunch Graham critic you got to admit that there isn’t much you can say to bash his hair appearance.
6. What's your prediction for Thursday?
The obvious key is how both offenses will function with a new starting quarterbacks (assuming Brett Hundley is sidelined). UCLA has proved to some extent that they can withstand that and it remains to be seen if ASU can do the same.
The strength of the UCLA offense is its passing game and that can play into the hands of a talented ASU secondary. The ASU’s running game, which is bigger strength than the passing game will face a fairly good run defense, but the Bruin defense much like ASU’s, has shown a lot of vulnerability and its over aggressiveness that it has exhibited the first three weeks could come back to bite them even against a backup quarterback.
The last three contests between both teams were decided by less than a touchdown and I’m expecting another close affair where ASU does just enough to edge UCLA 27-23.
Know Your Foe: Arizona State
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