The Sun Devils return to home tomorrow to kick off the first of seven games at Sun Devil Stadium in 2015 as they welcome in the Cal Poly Mustangs, an FCS school out of the Big Sky Conference.
The Mustangs are riding high, fresh off a surprising 20-19 victory over the Montana Grizzlies. A week prior, Montana had pulled off its own upset North Dakota State, the team that has won the FCS Championship the last three seasons.
ASU on the other hand will look to gain its first win of the season after being beaten by Texas A&M last week in Houston 38-17, due to special teams miscues, poor play calling by the offense, and inability to block a bevy of talented A&M pass rushers. And while Cal Poly will indeed be the only FCS school the Devils will face in 2015, their unique brand of the triple option attack on offense will force Todd Graham and company to think twice before looking ahead to next week.
ASU supporters looking for good news can look to the Sun Devils success against FCS opponents since Todd Graham took over in 2012, winning each of its games against these schools by an average score 54-7.
ASU (-33.5) vs Cal Poly
First Tine of the Game: Getting Comfortable on the Offensive Line
Senior quarterback Mike Bercovici was under duress throughout the season opener as the coaching staff failed to come up with a solution to prevent the Aggies defensive line from constantly meeting up in their offensive backfield. According to Pro Football Focus, Bercovici was pressured on nearly 40-percent of his drop backs.
Junior left tackle Evan Goodman, had a rough first start at the position but was left in the game as redshirt freshman Sam Jones, a promising but young alternative, remained on the sidelines at nrg Stadium.
The Sun Devils hand may be forced to make some adjustments going into Saturday night as both Goodman and senior starting center Nick Kelly were both limited in practice this week due to injuries. It would make sense to rest Goodman if he isn’t fully fit against a lesser opponent with the USC game only two weeks away. At the same time, it would allow Norvell to see how far Jones has advanced since the beginning of his redshirt year.
Both Norvell and offensive line coach Chris Thomsen addressed the media this week after practice, taking the blame for how the offense performed against the Aggies. Norvell took full responsibility for failing to call more run plays behind an ASU interior offensive line, considered to be one of the strengths of the team coming into the season.
Whether or not Kelly, a member of the All-Pac-12 second team, returns for his fifteenth career start for the Devils. Redshirt junior Stephon McCray, the team’s backup at all three interior line spots, would be making only his second start for the Devils if Kelly can’t go.
Second Tine of the Game: Special Teams Improvement
It was a tough first game at the helm for new special teams coach Shawn Slocum. While junior kicker Zane Gonzalez, now in his third season as the team’s starting kicker, showed promise in his ability to force touchbacks on kickoffs. This was a breath of fresh air for a team that has struggled in recent years to find a specialist with the ability to prevent opposing teams returners from making an impact. Gonzalez also made his only field goal attempt, albeit just a 23-yard kick.
Every other aspect of this phase of the game, proved to be disastrous however. Be it the two penalties for running into both the kicker and punter, the 79-yard touchdown punt return by true freshman Christian Kirk, or the ineffectiveness of nearly all of junior Matt Haack’s ten punts, Slocum’s equivalent of a first day at work was one to forget. Add to it the news that sophomore Kalen Ballage, the team’s key returner, was a late scratch in Houston suffering from mono, Slocum certainly has had his hands full over the course of the last seven days.
Now with a few practices to prepare for life without Ballage, however long that may be, Slocum can at least put forth a game plan prepared for the personnel he has available.
Third Tine of the Game: Replacing Ballage
The teams’ loss of Ballage was painful both on special teams, and in the Devils running back rotation, with Ballage projected to
spell fellow sophomore Demario Richard. Without Ballage, De’Chavon Hayes was thrust into increased touches in the run game, where he proved ineffective against the Aggies run defense.
With Hayes failing to take advantage of his increased playing time, and the poor play by Goodman at left tackle, ASU failed to make improvements on the 70th ranked rushing offense in 2014 according to Football Outsiders. Graham and Norvell offered no definitive answers this week after practice in terms of who will receive carries behind Richard on Saturday. Whether Hayes once again gets the call, or the possibility of D.J. Foster returning to his old position, we shall see.
There’s also the option of calling on true freshman Jason Lewis, the 6-foot-3 power back who arrived to camp late this summer but just might be the perfect compliment to Richard. But would the Devils be willing to burn a redshirt year on Lewis if there’s a shot at getting Ballage back in a few weeks?
For more on Saturday night’s game, check out our previous previews of Cal Poly written back in August.