Having scored 112 points at home in their first two contests against Northern Arizona and Texas Tech to open up the 2016 season, ASU played the role of visitor for the first time against the UTSA Roadrunners on Friday, favored by nearly three touchdowns against the Conference USA school.
But it would once again take second half adjustments by ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson to change the tide and thwart the opposing offense down the stretch. Much like it did the week prior against the Red Raiders, the Devils with the proper defensive adjustments, would finally pull away thanks to a run of 20 unanswered points to close out the contest with its third win of the season 32-28 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
While the Roadrunners weren’t necessarily the most formidable opponent for the Devils in terms of talent up and down the two deep, there was still much to glean from such a flat performance from a team that is still a huge unknown in 2016.
In this particular case, even with injuries and suspensions of some key starters on the Devils roster, I believe that there are several things we can take away from this game both positive and negative heading into conference play against Cal this upcoming weekend.
N’Keal Harry is everything you could want out of a true freshman wide receiver
Leave it to the ASU fan base to take things to the ultimate extreme one way or another with their football team. But all the superlatives used on this true freshman so far seem to be warranted after three games.
With Tim White being held out on offense due to a hamstring injury, Harry stepped up in a big way as the team’s primary receiving threat on Saturday.
Now the Devils most targeted receiver after three games, Harry teamed with senior Cam Smith to handle the bulk of the action in the downfield passing game highlighted by a one-handed touchdown grab to end the first half.
One of the stories we’ll be following over the next year or so will be whether the Harry/Wilkins partnership can develop into the same potency we witnessed a few seasons back with Taylor Kelly and Jaelen Strong.
Before that happens, Wilkins will have to improve in his deep ball accuracy while Harry learns to use his physical gifts as an advantage over smaller Pac-12 defensive backs. Harry also has the privilege of being coached by one of the better position coaches ASU has had in some time in Jay Norvell.
Between the skill of the player and the quality of instruction he currently receives, Harry looks to have a promising path grooved out for him on what could culminate in hearing his name called in the first night of the NFL Draft as soon as 2019.
Todd Graham echoed this during Monday’s weekly press conference, “Coach Norvell has done a great job developing (Harry) and he is becoming a real threat for us. Not only can he do a great job catching the football, he has also done well blocking and getting better at everything he works on.”
Tim White is needed on two fronts
The senior wide receiver is critical to the success of both the rhythm of the offense at his slot position, as well as his ability as the team’s punt returner.
After struggling to get back to health from a hamstring injury sustained in the Texas Tech game, White was forced into duty in the second half due to muffed punts by both Kalen Ballage and De’Chavon Hayes. These two fumbles were critical in helping to keep UTSA in the game, as it could be argued that ASU might have blown the doors off this game had they not turned the ball over on both occasions giving the Roadrunners short fields that equated to 14 points.
As good as good as the special teams unit has been this year (we’ll get to that more in a second), it’s still hard to believe that Todd Graham has struggled to assemble a roster that forces him to put a key playmaker out on the field at less than full health just to simply fair catch punts, let alone the redshirt he was forced to burn on Cole Cabral in order for the team to have a passable snapper for field goals and point after attempts. That, in theory, is why you field a rich walk-on program. To help plug holes like this that always tend to pop-up each and every season.
But what would have happened if White re-injured his hamstring? Not having the confidence of any other player on the team to simply wave a fair catch on the punt could have cost the Devils down the road heading into conference play.
In terms of his impact on offense, White and Harry look to compliment each other very well with their skill sets. Harry being the big bodied possession receiver with enough top-end speed to be the team’s next great deep threat. White on the other hand possesses the speed and agility the make things happen against both man coverage and in zone, most importantly across the middle of the field, an area Wilkins had little to no success targeting over the course of the game against UTSA.
Moeakiola is still the glue of this defense
Laiu Moeakiola is what you see in Todd Graham’s dictionary when you look up the Spur position. He’s the best combination ASU has in terms of being able to read and diagnose plays, tackle in space, while possessing the range to cover defenders in the passing game.
Due to prior shoulder injuries, however, the coaching staff thought it best to try to move the senior to the bandit safety position to help bring some stability to the secondary while getting him farther away from the line of scrimmage. Sometimes plans change, and after two games and two quarters and change, something just wasn’t working at Moeakiola’s old spot. Marcus Ball was getting targeted by the UTSA offense as a liability in covering its running backs on the perimeter, and credit to the coaches for their second half adjustments, Moeakiola was moved back to his old position. And once again, Todd Graham had his woobie blanket back at his old position.
In Moeakiola’s place at bandit, junior J’Marcus Rhodes was inserted, and from that point on UTSA would be held scoreless for the remainder of the game. It was in fact the most dominating quarter and a half performance the ASU defense has seen in the early going of 2016 as the UTSA offense were held to three-and-outs on four straight occasions and a turnover on downs in its final drive. Just the kind of momentum the unit needed heading into a conference opener against a Cal team that currently sits third in the nation averaging 580 yards of offense per game.
Tackling has to improve
Having just faced one of the better all-around quarterbacks in the country in Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech, the Roadrunners Dalton Sturm could be collectively accepted as a couples notches down on the college quarterback pecking order. That said, an ASU pass rush that was able to penetrate with regularity, just couldn’t wrap him up consistently when given the opportunity.
Sturm was the Roadrunners most potent weapon with his elusiveness in the pocket and downfield runs, totaling 82 yards with his legs by the end of the evening. With the way Pac-12 offenses are humming so far this season, preventing the quarterback from extending plays will be critical for the long-term success of this unit.
Things should improve dramatically with Salamo Fiso making his season debut for the Cal game. And Christian Sam looks to be back on the field this week or next. As the two players were the Devils two topped the Devils in both total and solo tackles in 2015.
Zane Gonzalez could win this team a few games in 2016
Already the Steven Seagal of kickoffs for the Devils, leading the nation in touchbacks (he finished second nationally in 2015) this season; Gonzalez helped keep ASU alive in the first half when the offense had yet to get off the mat, with two 54-yard field goals. After successfully converting a 45-yard attempt in the second half, the senior kicker became the Pac-12 record holder with 424 career points (81 FGs, 179 PATs, and a 2-point conversion) en route to being named the Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week.
Never known as a long field goal threat, Gonzalez has certainly become one of the most well-rounded kickers in the conference if not the country.
With an offense still looking to gain more consistency, Gonzalez might get called upon early and often with the way this team has struggled in each and every first quarter this season against sub par opponents.