Know your foe: Arizona State

The Trojans host the Sun Devils Saturday afternoon in the Coliseum in what should be an exciting Pac-12 South battle. Devils Digest publisher Hob Rabino answers our questions about this ASU squad.

What is the mentality of this team coming off the UCLA loss at home?

Rabino: That is certainly the $64,000 question right now in Tempe. The coaches and players are saying all the right things to project an attitude of resilience. This is an ASU team that was able to bounce back in a remarkable way last year from a rout (a road loss to Stanford) and they believe that they can do so again this year.

Then again, the 2014 squad is depending on many more inexperienced players in comparison and you truly don’t know how those individuals will able to put that UCLA loss behind them. I think the mental preparation for this game will be effective, but if the Sun Devils are faced with adversity on Saturday, especially in the early stages of the contest, can they truly overcome it? Even the most optimistic ASU fans aren’t too sure right now.

Which quarterback is going to play? With Taylor Kelly out, the Sun Devils still had almost 500 yards passing. There were some throws they would like to have back, but was there really much of a drop off at the QB spot?

Rabino: Mike Bercovici will get his second start of his ASU career this weekend, as Taylor Kelly is a couple weeks away from having a realistic chance to play.

Bercovici’s debut as a starter was OK. On the one hand not only did he pass for 488 yards, a school record for a Sun Devil signal caller making his debut, his 42-68 passing was both a school record for attempts and completions. On the other hand, his three turnovers, especially the momentum shifting interception for a touchdown right before the half, significantly negated those accomplishments.

I certainly didn’t see a drop-off in the passing game, and truth be told that Kelly in the first three games of 2014 wasn’t sharp at all in this respect and in reality played at a few levels below his 2013 performance. On the other hand, Kelly kept a clean sheet when it came to turnovers, did a better job running the zone read and thus was more effective in the running game. Those three aspects undoubtedly were deficiencies last week and a drop-off from the season’s first three games.

So it goes without saying that Kelly and Bercovici in many regards couldn’t be more different than each other in their skill set. One aspect that has helped Kelly to balance his struggles in the passing game, was a deft ground attack that going into the UCLA game averaged over 300 yards a contest. The rushing attack in the UCLA game did very little to support Bercovici, but obviously being in catch up mode the entire second half helped that trend as well as aid Bercovici putting up gaudy passing numbers.

USC recruited D.J. Foster hard and most Trojan fans are familiar with him. How important is he to this Sun Devil offense?

Rabino: This ASU offense will go as far as Foster will take them. Even though Foster was solid in the passing game last week, his lack of success on the gound (nine carries, 30 yards) was detrimental to the Sun Devils, who’s scheme is a downhill running system aimed to balance the passing game. When that balance is truly achieved, with Foster leading the charge on the ground, ASU is a team that can easily put up 40 points or more on the board. As deep as the ASU running back stable is, I don’t see any one player able to lead the charge in this department as Foster can.

Foster is extremely explosive having four plays from scrimmage this year longer than 40 yards. Even with a horrible game at UCLA he’s still leads the Pac-12 with 545 yards rushing, as he averages 135 yards a game and 8.57 yards per carry. He has also caught at least one pass in each of the 31 games he has played for the Sun Devils. All in all, it would be hard to imagine an ASU win without Foster playing at the high level he did for the first three games this season.

Jaelen Strong has 12 catches for 146 yards against the Bruins. Can you tell us something about Strong that Trojan fans might be surprised to know?

Rabino: The wide receiver actually redshirted his first year at Woodland Hills’ Pierce College and played just there during the 2012 season. Following that campaign he crammed in 27 credits in the spring and summer semesters to ensure that he arrived at ASU in time for the 2013 season, rather than be part of the 2014 recruiting class.

That feat really captures the essence of Strong, a very businesslike humble individual despite being not only one of the best wide receivers in the Pac-12 but also in the nation and considered by many pundits a sure fire first round pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Did anything but rest on his laurels from 2013, and his hard work in the off-season has resulted in a player who is now more explosive than before and more adept in the technique and nuances of his position.

Thursday night Arizona State had a hard time tackling Bruin ball carriers. Saturday night USC backs had a hard time breaking tackles. Steve Sarkisian has made it a point of emphasis for his backs to not go down at first contact. What has ASU done this week to shore up the tackling and limit some of the explosive plays?

Rabino: Interesting battle indeed between a unit who had a hard time breaking tackles and one that had problems just tackling period. Something will have to give on Saturday evening.

The coaches have said that even prior to the UCLA game a lot of emphasis has been given every practice to proper tackling, but I wouldn’t be surprised in these practice segments were longer this week. Todd Graham is a head coach who has always stressed fundamentals and that importance has been taken to even a higher level these days. We’ll see on Saturday if ASU was able to reap the fruits of their hard labor.

Everyone knows the Sun Devils had to replace a lot on defense. How have some of the younger guys responded through the first third of the season?

Rabino: It has been a rough season for the defense. A game such as the season opener against FCS opponent Weber State should have a dominating performance from start to finish, but only the starters played well as the reserves left a lot to be desired. Then came a contest versus the triple option offense of New Mexico, and the struggles dealing with that scheme were quite evident in the first half, although the second half was vastly improved.

The Colorado game was ironically a mirror image of ASU’s performance versus UCLA, as formidable numbers on offense, namely Colorado’s 545 yards of total offense, were null and void by its three turnovers. So it was a classic bend but not break game for the Sun Devils defense.

Against UCLA, not only did the defense surrender 580 yards but also two 80-yard touchdowns where the aforementioned missed tackles highlighted the inexperience of this group that much more. Many of these defenders were also part of a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

The bevy of first-year players on this side of the ball at times have played with little control and no assignment soundness, and in other instances had their play be affected by over thinking during their reps which hindered executing. Youth is being served in large portions in Tempe and the results have been less than appetizing.

Interestingly enough, every time USC plays a Pac-12 South opponent this season, that team will have extra time to prepare (bye week or Thursday game). How is ASU taking advantage of the few extra practice days?

Rabino: ASU had just had one extra practice on Sunday, to go along with its usual Tuesday-Thursday sessions. It did give ASU extra time to work on its collective tackling technique and other fundamentals, something that the team obviously hopes will manifest itself come Saturday. It also helped the staff tinker with some possible lineup changes on defense and allow Bercovici grow that much more comfortable with his offensive teammates as he prepares to make only his second ever start.

What are your keys to the game and score prediction?

Rabino: I know everyone has heard ad nauseum that ASU has to eliminate turnovers and improve tackling, and those are certainly important aspects. I do however feel that two other factors aren’t talked about as much as they should.

One, is pressure on the quarterback. This is another area that with a green group of players has been a sore spot. The Sun Devils, whether rushing four or bringing heat have done poorly for most of this young season. With a fairly immobile quarterback such as Cody Kessler who can absolutely pick up apart a defense with his accuracy, it’s imperative for ASU that he doesn’t get comfortable in the pocket, otherwise it will be a long night for the visitors in the L.A. Coliseum.

On offense, and I touched on this earlier, ASU has to establish the run early and often with Foster ideally being at the forefront and displaying the form he did up until the UCLA contest. Much has been written about USC’s lack of depth due to having just 60 or so scholarship players. A punishing ground attack, aside from evoking not so pleasant memories of the Boston College loss, can wear down an already thin Trojan defense as well as take pressure off Bercovici and ultimately help the Sun Devils achieve the offensive balance which is paramount to their success.

While the blue print for an ASU win is clearly laid out, I’m not so sure if it can be executed. The Sun Devils are about to meet a very stingy defense which has proved itself against some of the better conference squads in Stanford and Oregon State, the ASU defense naturally has a lot to clean up and that could be a tall task based on its performance in recent weeks and its youth, and the Sun Devils’ special teams is a unit that has had recurring issues placing the offense in good field position and giving the opponent a longer field to work with.

My prediction is USC 44 ASU 33.


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