Saturday night in Tempe, the ASU Football team opened their season with a win over Northern Arizona. While the final score of 44-13 might indicate the requisite blowout ASU fans were looking for, it wasn’t telling. But the results warrant further analysis ahead of ASU playing Texas Tech, a more competative opponent, heading into the second week of the season.
ASU on Offense
Anyone who follows this ASU squad knew that the offense would be a question mark going into 2016. The biggest concern revolved around the quarterback position. Whoever got tapped for the Sun Devils was going to make his first collegiate start. In this case, it was redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins. Along with a green quarterback was the rebuilt offensive line, replacing four starters from a year ago.
Leading into the contest in looked like the ASU offensive coaching staff would ease Wilkins into this game, not asking him to do too much and protecting him schematically. That’s essentially what happened. To his credit, Wilkins executed the game plan fairly well.
Wilkins is athletic, and he certainly made some athletic plays. However, we’d be remiss to not state the obvious: this Sun Devils offense showed no threat of a vertical passing attack through 60 minutes against NAU. At this point, it’s difficult to say if that is a function of Wilkins’ limitations or if it is a function of the limitations of the entire offense. Schematically, it would make sense if the vertical passing game struggled because NAU sat back with seven or eight defenders in the secondary all night. That wasn’t the case. If it were, then the heralded ASU running backs presumably would have run wild against NAU (which they didn’t).
The rushing attack for the ASU offense was a disappointment. With the 1-2 punch of running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, the running game was supposed to take pressure off of Wilkins and overwhelm the undermanned Lumberjacks defensive front seven. It didn’t happen, at least not in the first three quarters.
Moving forward, this ASU offensive unit needs to improve in every facet. The offensive line needs to improve their pass protection as well as their run blocking. The receivers need to improve on getting separation from their defenders. For his part, Wilkins needs to get comfortable throwing the ball down the field, rather than just throwing quick hitches and bubble routes. And he needs to get comfortable stepping up in the pocket to deliver the ball, instead of giving up on the play and scrambling.
Overall, the performance of the ASU offense may have been what experts were predicting. At best, they were adequate. At worst, they were unimpressive. It would be appropriate to say that with this offensive unit, the Sun Devils were lucky to start their season against an FCS opponent. They’ll have to make big improvements to beat more worthy opponents.
ASU on Defense
The book on the ASU defense heading into the season was that the defensive line was as good as any in the Pac-12 being supported by a solid group of linebackers. The big question mark was the secondary. After watching the opener against NAU, perhaps nothing was really learned about this defense.
Schematically, Graham’s defense was what coaches call “vanilla”. Uncharacteristically, Graham did not involve a lot of exotic blitzes and stunts. Nor did he employ any confusing coverages, sticking with a basic cover 3 approach.
It will never be known whether it was Graham heeding the critics and simplifying his game plan or if it was just a necessity because of the personnel. But it’s a blueprint he’s followed for the most part since he took over in 2012, outside of the opener against Texas A&M last season.
Whatever the case may be, the defensive scheme was nothing complex. And that is acceptable for a game like this against an FCS opponent. Graham doesn’t want to expose all of his tricks to his upcoming opponents. The other factor was who wasn’t playing in this game. Four year starting linebacker Salamo Fiso was suspended for violating team rules. Laiu Moeakiola, a defensive captain, did not dress because of an injury. Linebacker Christian Sam was injured early against NAU. And Linebacker Marcus Ball was ejected for targeting in the first series of the third quarter.
The result is that the defense earns the same grade as the offense: average. In the end, statistically, the ASU defense may have accomplished it’s objectives. But they were not dominant. The front four defensive linemen did not really disrupt the NAU passing game. The secondary still gave up big passing plays. The defensive unit looked more like the “bend but don’t break” defenses of the Dennis Erickson era.
Frustrating as it may be, ASU fans are going to have to wait a week until they learn what kind of defense they really have.