Jared Cooper

Coop’s Corner: Restoring the Run Game

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If ASU wants a chance at Pac-12 Championship, then improving in the run game and chopping down a friendly foe will bring them another step closer.

One area of the Sun Devil offense that makes it unique are their running backs. ASU sports several fast and elusive backs with DJ Foster, Kalen Ballage, Demario Richard, and many others. However, the run-game on the offensive side has seen a recent decline lately, an area that has really helped the Sun Devils previously.

Over the first three games against Weber State, New Mexico, and Colorado, ASU averaged 304.3 yards a game with all of the rushing touchdowns on the season in that stretch. Sun Devil freshman running back, Kalen Ballage said, “People know that we are strong in the running back area and they noticed that over the first couple of weeks. But when someone is gunning for you in that specific area, it becomes hard to really be productive.”

That someone ended up being UCLA and USC. After playing both teams in their previous two games, the Sun Devils averaged 84.5 yards a game, a major drop-off after early season success.

ASU running backs coach Bo Graham believes that the numbers were within the passing game in the previous weeks. “UCLA and USC did a great job of matching us up in the box, creating numbers and taking away the run which created the one-on-ones on the perimeter,” Graham said. “We just try to take what the defense gives us and we’ve got to re-establish some efficiency in the run game.”

On the good side, Ballage says that the recent lack of success for the running backs could help in the long run. “Now that people know that Mike Bercovici is the real deal, I think it will balance out again and we’ll be able to get the running game going,” stated Ballage. Providing a multitude of looks and confusion for the defense is one of the keys to offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s offense.

Alongside Ballage, is another freshman running back, Demario Richard who has also received some playing time in his limited time at ASU. Both players have made an impact on the offense and Bo Graham is not surprised with how they have adjusted to playing at the college level. “Hopefully those guys will continue to come on. We’re looking for more production as we go,” said Graham.

The man that leads this dynamic group of running backs is junior DJ Foster. Currently, he leads the Sun Devils with 553 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Foster has adjusted well to the Sun Devil offense and Bo Graham says it is his mental approach that makes him better. “The position that DJ plays in our offense probably requires beyond the quarterback than most thought just because we move him around so much. We ask him to obviously take part in the throw game, the run game, protections; he’s got to know every facet of our offense,” said Graham.

In order to maintain an electric offense every year, the recruiting needs to be on par. When looking for potential running backs, Bo Graham looks for the complete player. “A guy that can catch the ball, run the ball, pass protect, can block in the open field, just an overall athlete,” said Graham. “A complete back who understands the three phases.”

Photo by Jared Cooper

Fixing the running game is not the only thing the Sun Devils are focusing on. This weekend, ASU faces a familiar opponent, one who they have not had a lot of success with over the past couple of years, losing to the Stanford Cardinal twice last year. In the first game, the Sun Devil defense was no match for the Cardinal and led to a loss for ASU, 42 to 28. When they met again in the Pac-12 Championship game, senior defensive tackle Jaxon Hood said that they were not ready for that type of game. “They had been there before and we hadn’t. I think we were way too hyped,” stated Hood.

On Saturday, Stanford rolls into Tempe to play the Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. The Cardinal are 4-2, 2-1 in conference, going in to the weekend, with losses to USC and Notre Dame. Although Stanford ranks 89 in points for with an average of 26.3 a game, they are the best team in the nation when it comes to points against, holding defenses to a mere ten points a game.

The defense is the strength of the Cardinal, something ASU has been preparing for throughout the past two weeks. When game planning for such a daunting task, Bo Graham describes them as “well coached, smart, and disciplined.” More importantly, the Cardinal defense is multifaceted and throws many different looks at an offense. “They don’t play one particular front or one particular coverage. They mix it up quite a bit. They can be aggressive but at times they get to you with less and play zone in the back end. They’re just complex,” said Graham.

One advantage for the Sun Devils is that they have grown familiar with the play style of Stanford. Quarterback Mike Bercovici said that their previous history has helped them prepare for Saturday. “We know how we are going to attack them and we know how they are going to respond and some of their adjustments,” said Bercovici.

ASU has been waiting for this opportunity to get back at Stanford, but as a team, they know that it is a challenging task. After practice on Tuesday, head coach Todd Graham said that this game is all about “character vs. character, smart vs. smart, discipline vs. discipline, and toughness vs. toughness.” Graham went on to further say, “These guys have our respect. They are the two time defending champion and they’ve defined those four things and that’s what we’re trying to do; a lot of respect for these guys but we’re humble and hungry.”

With the Sun Devils working on adjusting the run game and preparing for Stanford, a win this weekend puts them on a better path towards getting back to the Pac-12 Championship game.

The game this Saturday against the Cardinal will be yet another of many tests for ASU throughout their brutal schedule, but Jaxon Hood is approaching every game one at a time. “A game like this is like sitting down like you are about to go war.”

About Jared Cooper

Jared Cooper

Jared is an Intern this season for ASU Devils Den. He is a senior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications studying Broadcast Journalism with a focus in sports broadcasting. In addition to interning at ASU Devils Den, he works in the Marketing Department for the Phoenix Suns. Jared is a former Sparky the Sun Devil, ASU's mascot, from 2011 to 2013.

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