Mike Slifer becomes the newest member of the ASUDevilsDen.com staff of writers covering everything Sun Devil Football. Long time readers of DevilsInDetail.com will be familiar with his work as lead writer and editor of the site over the past few years.
Last night in Tempe, the ASU Football team was thoroughly trounced by the Trojans of Southern Cal. In a performance that may have been one of the worst under head coach Todd Graham, the Sun Devils fell 42-14 in front of a stunned home crowd. Obviously, there was a lot that went wrong, and therefore quite a bit to discuss. Let’s begin with the defense.
First, you don’t need to know much about football to have noticed that the tackling by ASU was atrocious. The poor tackling by the Sun Devils was reminiscent of the thrashing they took last year at home versus UCLA. It was actually worse. The number of missed tackles reached double digits in the second quarter. That’s not winning football. ASU’s best defensive players seemed to literally bounce off of the USC running backs. Several of the Trojan’s big plays began with ASU hitting them in the backfield for a loss, only to see the runner escape for a big gain.
It’s difficult to place blame for this phenomenon but head coach is ultimately responsible for how his team performs, and Graham will be the first to admit that. But players also need to execute. Tackling is one of the first fundamentals taught and rehearsed at every level. Somewhere in the process of preparation, the ASU coaches and players have overlooked tackling. And it hurt. The best schemes in the world won’t produce results if defenders can’t get the ball carrier to the ground. It is not a function of talent. The ASU defense was not overmatched physically. They just played poorly.
Unfortunately, there is some blame that clearly falls on Graham for the defensive performance.
Specifically, the third down play calling by Graham. Third downs absolutely broke the back of ASU. In true Graham fashion, ASU brought a plethora of exotic blitzes on third down. And they got burned every time. For some reason, the defensive staff (headed by Graham) hasn’t figured out they are predictable on third down with their blitzing.
The idea of blitzing is to bring extra rushers to get to the quarterback on obvious passing downs. Ideally, through scheming, mismatches or just raw numbers you catch the offense off guard and get pressure on the quarterback. The risk associated with that is that you leave all the non-blitzers in man-to-man coverage in the secondary. And depending on how many blitzers you bring, you can also leave some receivers (or running backs) uncovered. A prepared offense and an experienced quarterback can punish a team that blitzes too often.
That was the case last night against USC. The Trojans, led by veteran quarterback Cody Kessler, were ready. And it really wasn’t that difficult. As the blitz came, Kessler just flipped the ball out to his “hot” receiver in space and let his skill players make a one on one move in the open.
It got so bad that in the second quarter, even the ESPN analyst covering the broadcast, Brian Griese commented that coach Graham needed to “swallow his pride and play some zone on third down”. That however, did not happen.
Just like the bowl game against Texas Tech after the 2013 season, Graham stubbornly kept bringing predictable blitzes and kept getting burned. This is probably the one technical/strategical flaw that Graham has not changed since coming to the program. He refused to adjust or dial down his aggressive scheme, even though he doesn’t have the athletes in the secondary to match up man to man.
As for the offense, it appeared that their struggles were the same as in previous weeks. Oddly enough, the running game has been thoroughly established. That was the only encouraging aspect of last night’s offensive performance. The rushing attack for this game was downhill, between the tackles behind the all-senior interior of the line in center Nick Kelly and guards Christian Westerman and Vi Teofilo.
But that’s all that went right for the ASU offense. Turnovers once again dashed any hopes for the Sun Devils. The opening drive ended in a fumble by sophomore running back Demario Richard. Another drive ended in a careless interception thrown by senior quarterback Mike Bercovici. Two drives in between were capped off with missed field goal attempts by junior kicker Zane Gonzalez.
The offense has no vertical threat. The receivers cannot get ample separation from defenders. The two new tackles junior Evan Goodman and senior Billy McGehee continue to struggle. And Bercovici has been average. He missed several routine throws even when he had good pass protection. The offense is simply not clicking.
The frustration of this offense (perhaps the entire team) can be summarized by the finish to the second quarter in what has to go down as the most disastrous 45 seconds in ASU football history. With under a minute to go, ASU had the ball on the Trojan half yard line, first and goal with all three timeouts. Down 21-0 at that point, it appeared that ASU would punch it in and head to the locker room at halftime down 21-7 to regroup. However, on first down, a high snap and poor blocking led to a fumbled hand-off that was scooped up by USC and taken 95 yards for a touchdown. Disaster. The players and crowd were so stunned that on the ensuing kickoff, ASU junior return man De’Chavon Hayes unexplainably tip-toed out of the end zone in clear indecision. He was smashed and fumbled, giving USC the ball on the 8 yard line with 19 seconds remaining in the half. USC scored two plays later to make the halftime score 35-0. That’s essentially a 21 point swing in a matter of seconds. Insurmountable.
So it is back to the drawing board for ASU. The only thing that doesn’t need to be tinkered with is the inside running game. Everything else this ASU football team is trying to do schematically needs to be revisited. More importantly, Graham needs to take a step back and figure out how to get his players to re-focus. The penalties, fumbles, indecision and poor execution must get rectified immediately or ASU won’t win any more football games. Unfortunately, they have to figure it out quickly because they go to the Rose Bowl next week to take on a UCLA team that just throttled the University of Arizona in Tucson last night. Undoubtedly, ASU fans are hoping that they figure out something soon.