By Charles Wulf
TEMPE, Ariz. — Last week did not go according to plan for Arizona State. The Sun Devils were beaten in the trenches and on special teams by Texas A&M. A disappointing start to the season but it’s not the end of the world. ASU’s postseason fate will be determined in conference play. Until then, the Devils will face two non-conference opponents in Cal Poly and New Mexico. These two games will allow the Sun Devils to work out their offensive and special teams issues and will challenge the defense with both Cal Poly and New Mexico utilizing the triple option.
First up is Cal Poly this Saturday in the newly renovated Sun Devil Stadium. The Mustangs are an FCS team and ASU should win easily in their first home game.
Defensively the Sun Devils will need to play assignment football against the Mustangs’ triple option. Running the show for Cal Poly will be senior quarterback Chris Brown. In their season opener against Montana, Brown threw twelve passes, only completing four of them but led them with 130 rushing yards and a touchdown — the team racked up 330 total rushing yards. The Mustangs will attack a Sun Devil defense with a throwback attack only utilized by a handful of teams nowadays.
“You have to work really, really hard about being disciplined in your assignments because three yards is a great play. Do it three times, they go for it on fourth down,” Graham said after practice Thursday. “It’s a very different offense and it’s something we don’t really ever see.”
The Devils will have to stay disciplined on defense and force Cal Poly into obvious passing situations. Last week the Mustangs converted four of six attempts on fourth down. Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson expressed the need to get multiple players to each assignment — the running back, quarterback, and pitch man.
“You’ve got to get multiple people to the dive, multiple people to the quarterback, and multiple people to the pitch. If not, you’re going to have one on one open field tackles. You miss a tackle and all of the sudden now you’ve got big plays,” Patterson said.
Arizona State has faced this attack before, though. In 2012, Graham’s squad faced Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and last season the Devils beat New Mexico easily in Albuquerque. In last season’s victory against the Lobos, ASU held New Mexico to 207 rushing yards, about 100 yards short of their average rushing output per game in 2014.
Graham also announced there will be some personnel changes. Redshirt freshman linebacker Ismael Murphy-Richardson will play “a lot” after being suspended from the season opener for a violation of team rules. Graham expects the 6’4″ 230-pound freshman to play DEVIL backer and give Antonio Longino some rest throughout the game. Graham believes that Murphy-Richardson can make an impact in the pass rush.
“I feel good about where he’s [Murphy-Richardson] at. He’s really had a good week. He’s got to be disciplined, he’s never played in a game so we’ll see where he’s at. I think he’s a guy that can be a really good player for us, he’s just got to continue to learn what we’re doing,” Graham said.
Another guy who might see the field Saturday night is redshirt freshman Renell Wren. Graham said Thursday that Wren is close to being ready to join ASU’s defensive tackle rotation. Last week the Devils played Tashon Smallwood, Demetrius Cherry, and Viliami Latu on the interior defensive line but Graham would like to add a fourth to that rotation.
“I feel really good about where our defensive line is and I’m challenging them every day to bring more passion,” Graham said. “It’s the best group that we’ve had and they played really, really well last week. I’d like to rotate more of them but we’ve got to make sure they’re ready. It’s a little bit complicated, some of the things we do and we just can’t have errors.”
Offensively, the Sun Devils need to get off to a quicker start after a dismal performance against A&M. ASU only manage 291 yards of offense — only 92 rushing yards — and failed to protect quarterback Mike Bercovici. Scoring quickly and forcing Cal Poly to play from behind was something Graham stressed on Thursday.
“The whole deal is you have to score, you have to play from ahead of them, and you can’t let them hang around because they will eat up the clock. You’re going to get less opportunities so you got to make sure you’re very disciplined and maximize your opportunities on offense,” Graham said.
Getting the ball to DJ Foster should be top priority for ASU’s offense. Foster only had nine touches against A&M — six catches and three carries — and was primarily lined up in the slot. Deputy head coach and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell wants to utilize Foster’s versatility.
“Obviously there’s different things we can do. DJ is probably one of the most versatile players in the country so we’re going to find ways to make sure we continue to get him touches,” Norvell said. “Whenever there might be a time that he’s not getting the true one on ones on the perimeter, [we’re] able to find ways to get him the ball and continue to move him around.”
With Kalen Ballage missing another game due to mono, the Sun Devils need to use Foster in the running game more. De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes had four more touches than Foster against A&M but Foster out gained Gump by 42 yards. ASU would be wise to employ Foster like they did Hayes this week and limit Gump’s workload to special teams.
ASU will also hope to create more big plays. Texas A&M’s pass rush left Bercovici with no time to make downfield throws. Only two ASU receivers averaged more than 10 yards per reception. With offensive tackle Evan Goodman banged up, Graham and Norvell will look to redshirt freshman Sam Jones to fill-in at tackle. Bercovici was sacked nine times last week and although Cal Poly doesn’t have anything close to a Myles Garrett-type pass rusher, the Devils will want to keep Bercovici upright.
Special teams was and has been ASU’s weakness for some time now. After giving up a punt return touchdown in the opener, the Sun Devils showed there is still work to be done. Graham announced that they have made some personnel changes on the punt and kickoff teams. Moving Armand Perry, Lloyd Carrington, and Kweishi Brown to punt team and having “tweaked a few deals” on kickoffs should result in a better performance on special teams.
Although Cal Poly isn’t a huge test for the Devils, this game is important. ASU was exposed by Texas A&M and improvements need to be made. Playing a lesser team like Cal Poly gives the Sun Devils the chance to right the ship and work out the kinks. Don’t panic. This is a long season and Graham is positive his team will bounce back.
“We didn’t fold up shop and put a padlock on the door because we lost the first game,” Graham said. “The expectation for our team is exactly what it is and I’d like to tell everybody let’s wait until the end of the season and then everyone can have their opinion. And I guarantee our team will respond.”