Mike Slifer

Three Tines of the Game: UCLA


This weekend, the Arizona State Football team limps into Pasadena, CA to take on PAC-12 South foe UCLA in the Rose Bowl.  The Sun Devils (2-2, 0-1) are coming off of an embarrassingly lopsided loss to USC last week.  The UCLA Bruins (4-0, 1-0) on the other hand, are riding the momentum of a convincing victory over the Arizona in Tucson.

It could be argued that this ASU football team has a lot to improve on.  In fact, they need to improve in every phase of the game if they want to have a decent season.  The Sun Devils got outplayed by the Trojans in almost every category last weekend.  However, all hope is not lost if ASU can get it together and pull off an upset this weekend.

Here are the Three Tines of the Game as we see it:

ASU vs UCLA (-13.5)

First Tine of the Game:  Stick With What Works; Running the Ball

Through four games this season, the ASU offense has struggled.  They have not yet discovered a vertical threat and they are not getting the explosive plays that ASU fans have grown accustomed to.  Quarterback Mike Bercovici has yet to find a good rhythm as a passer.  The two new tackles on the offensive line are struggling with pass protection.

There is however, something that the ASU offense has been able to establish; a running game.  Red Zone issues aside, the Sun Devils have been able to run the Offense run gameball.  And they aren’t doing it by scheming to attack the perimeter.  They are doing it between the tackles.  Behind the interior offensive line, ASU is having success running downhill, particularly with sophomore running back DeMario Richard.  In fact, rushing the ball is the only part of last week’s game where the Sun Devils outperformed the Trojans.

This Saturday, it would be in ASU’s best interest to stick with what is working by running the football with authority.  If ASU can move the ball like that against the talent of USC, they can surely move the ball against UCLA.  Grinding out yards with a solid rushing attack will not only wear down the UCLA defense, it will open up the play-action pass.  ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell needs  to fight the urge to be overly creative and just stick with what works.

Second Tine of the Game:  Be Smart About Pressuring the Quarterback

This falls more directly on ASU head coach Todd Graham.  After the debacle last week, Graham was criticized for bringing predictable blitzes on third downs against USC.  Those blitzes put the secondary in jeopardy and it cost the Sun Devils dearly.  However, last week’s opposing quarterback was Cody Kessler, a seasoned veteran quarterback.  It’s not an accident that Kessler was able to read the blitz, make the right read and execute the right pass.

This week’s opposing quarterback, Josh Rosen, is a true freshman.  He’s a talented player, but still a freshman.   Oddly enough, Coach Graham’s philosophy of exotic blitzes on third down that hurt ASU last week against Kessler just might be right way to attack Rosen this Saturday.  While Rosen is an intelligent and talented quarterback, this will only be his 5th college game.  (as opposed to Kessler’s 30th)  Aggressive and complicated blitzes might be difficult for Rosen to read and adjust to.

But here’s the key:  There’s nothing wrong with having an aggressive Plan A.  (blitzing with man to man)  But this week, Graham needs to have a Plan B.  If the ASU defense becomes predictable and the exotic blitzes aren’t working, Graham needs to  switch it up and play some zone or some “nickel” defense.  Truthfully, it could be anything different to mix up the looks and not be so predictable, especially on third down.

Third Tine of the Game:  Be Who You Are, Just Be Better At It

This Tine pertains to the mental aspect of football.  All week long, the ASU players have been hearing about how they need to do something different; reinvent themselves or start over.  In fact, doubt might be creeping into the minds of several of the players.  Doubt in themselves, the coaches, their teammates or the system.  But it’s not necessary.

Yes, the game plan and philosophy needs to be tweaked a bit.  The ASU coaching staff would be wise to simplify some things.  Undoubtedly, fundamentals need to be revisited.  But this ASU Football team does not need to start over.  They don’t need to try to be something or somebody else.  They have talent.  They have competent coaches.  They just need to play better.  It’s time for ASU to come back to earth and keep chopping wood to outwork their opponent.  It’s really that simple.

In the end, this ASU Football team probably isn’t good enough to beat UCLA in Pasadena.  Fans who are asking this team to pull off that kind of an upset are probably asking for too much.  Instead, ASU fans should hope that their football team can keep the game competitive.  Even though there are not really any “moral victories” at this level, a hard-fought, closely-lost game is a step in the right direction for this program.  That is just the reality for ASU football right now.

Check out Gary Doran’s statistical preview of this game written earlier in the week, as well as our pre-season write-ups on the Bruins.

Advanced Stats Report

Sun Devil Schedule Study

About Mike Slifer

Mike Slifer

Mike Slifer has been a teacher and football/basketball coach at the high school level for 17 years. He brings a unique perspective to the analysis of the game. Mike’s experience as a position coach, coordinator and head coach provides him with unique insights. He is interested in writing for an audience that wants more details, technical explanations and “coach think” as part of the discussion of the sport.

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