ASU football's midseason review

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Coming off their dominating 26-10 victory over Stanford, the Arizona State Sun Devils are riding high.

They capped off the first half of the 2014 season by moving up to No. 14 in the AP Top 25, and at 3-1 in Pac-12 play, they remain in control of their own destiny as they look to repeat as South division champions. 

The first six games have produced thrills and disappointments, successes and failures, and a fair number of to-be-determineds. As the Sun Devils prepare for Saturday's road battle against Washington, let's review the best, worst, and more so far.

Offensive MVP: Jaelen Strong

The question is no longer "How good is Jaelen?" It's "Is he the best wide receiver in ASU history?"

Heading into 2014, the expectations for Strong were immense, but he has so far exceeded them. Whether it has been Taylor Kelly or Mike Bercovici behind center, the 6-foot-3 redshirt junior has been their top target. He has continued to make the difficult catches look easy while being the opposition's top coverage target on every snap.

Through the first half of the season, Strong has made 49 catches for 689 yards and six touchdowns, and his 114.8 yards per game are tops in the Pac-12. 

While the team's quarterback situation remains in flux, and the running game inconsistent in recent weeks, the Sun Devil offense has been able to count on Strong to make a play when needed.

Needs Improvement: Taylor Kelly

Following last season, Taylor Kelly was named the All-Pac-12 second team quarterback. As one of the nation's most experienced starters heading into the year, hopes were high for a historic year.

While he did win his three starts, Kelly did not play to his previous level before suffering the foot injury late in the Colorado game. He wasn't playing poorly overall, but rather, he failed to reach the championship-level he showed in 2013 and that ASU needs in 2014. 

Things were just this much away from being where they should, and with the success that Mike Bercovici has had as the starter, it's worth pondering how much slack the 30-game starter will have upon his return given how competitive the South race is shaping up to be.

Defensive MVP: Laiu Moeakiola

It's not hard to get ASU head coach Todd Graham to gush about one of his players, but there is just something unique about the way that he discusses redshirt sophomore SPUR Laiu Moeakiola.

After struggling last year at safety, Moeakiola has found a home at the hybrid linebacker spot, quickly becoming the front seven's top playmaker. Despite being slowed by a shoulder injury suffered against Colorado, Moeakiola has made 29 tackles with five tackles-for-loss and is tied for the team lead with two sacks.

His play has helped solidify an often shaky linebacking group, and his leadership ability is such that Graham named him a team captain earlier this season. As ASU's defense continues to grow, Moeakiola will continue to be a driving force.

Needs Improvement: Defensive line

Moeakiola's play has been a boost up front from the second level, but the Sun Devil line in front of him remains a concern. 

ASU has often struggled against the run, and currently rank 92nd in the FBS in rush defense with just over 185 yards per game. They've also failed to make generate any pass rush, with just two total sacks from the group.

Against Stanford, ASU ran more four-man front looks, with Demetrius Cherry joining Marcus Hardison, Jaxon Hood, and Tashon Smallwood, and produced their best outcome of the year. The Sun Devils will need to hope that that effort is the start of a turnaround and not an aberration.

Best Moment: #JaelMary

As if there could be any other choice.

A play that instantly became one of the most famous moments in Sun Devil history, the 46-yard hail mary on the final play to beat No. 16 USC on the road may have saved the season for ASU. While the crazy sequence of events leading up to Bercovici's touchdown may be even more improbable than Strong's catch, that play is unlikely to have any equal this season.

Worst Moment: Pick 6 vs. UCLA

There were many contenders from the loss to the Bruins. Either of the 80-yard touchdown passes given up after shoddy tackling and coverage. The kickoff return for a score allowed. The apparent lack of defensive effort all night long.

However, it was Mike Bercovici's interception near the end of the first half that was the true backbreaker. 

After squandering a 17-6 lead earlier in the second quarter, ASU had a chance to head into the half tied at 20. Well within field goal range at the UCLA 17, Bercovici dropped back to pass on a third and 12, but his attempt was misfired. Ishmael Adams made the interception and returned it 95 yards for the score.

Biggest Question on Offense: Can the running game get back on track?

Over the first three games, ASU rushed for 913 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per carry. Granted, it came against Weber State, New Mexico, and Colorado, but the results were undeniably promising. 

However, once the quality of opposition ramped up, the rushing game fell off. In the three games since, the Sun Devils have managed just 283 yards, and the per carry average has fallen to a paltry 2.7.

Some of the struggles are related to Kelly's injury, as Bercovici is not the same running threat off the read option. In fact, despite missing the last three games, Kelly is still the team's second leading rusher with 168 yards. ASU has also faced better defenses.

Nevertheless, the backfield led by D.J. Foster (612 yards, 6.3 yards per carry) must be more of a factor down the stretch. There are few backs in the nation more dynamic than Foster, and while his receiving totals have been terrific over the last three weeks, he must once again become the difference maker on the ground for ASU's offense to reach its full potential.

Biggest Question on Defense: Can a consistent pass rush be found?

The foundation of the Sun Devil defense in the Todd Graham era has been built upon attacking philosophies. Thanks to top-flight playmakers like Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, and Chris Young, Graham's first two desert defenses were among the nation's best at getting into the opposition's backfield.

Now, that trio and much more are gone, and the unit is rebuilding. Some drop off was to be expected, but the degree in which ASU's pass rush has struggled is significant. Opposing quarterbacks have often had more than enough time to go through their progressions and hit their receivers downfield, as ASU's defenders simply couldn't generate any pressure. The Sun Devils have just 12 sacks so far, and their rate of two per game is tied for just 68th in the FBS.

Hardison and Moeakiola are tied for the team lead with just two sacks each, with Hardison accounting for the entirety of the sack production from the defensive line. Simply put, this must get better if ASU is going to defend their South crown.

Most Encouraging Trend: Improving defense

While the search for a pass rush continues, the overall play of the defense has improved over the last two games against USC and Stanford.

Since bottoming out against UCLA in a display that showed a lack of effort, atrocious tackling, and a failure to prevent big plays, the Sun Devils have become a solid, if unspectacular unit. After giving up 10 yards per play against the Bruins, ASU held USC to 5.2 and Stanford to 4.4. In Saturday's win over Stanford, they held the Cardinal to 76 yards on the ground, just the second time over the Stanford's last 31 games that they've been held under 100.

With the youth and inexperience on that side of the ball, it was expected that ASU's defense would struggle as they tried to find the right lineups and players found their way. There is no denying that there is a long, long way to go to become a dominant defensive force, but the recent trendline is heading in the right direction.

Most Distressing Trend: Lack of turnovers

In Todd Graham's first two seasons at ASU, the Sun Devils ranked among the nation's best defenses at forcing turnovers.

After finishing 17th in 2012, only four teams forced more than ASU's 33 turnovers last season. Through six games, the 2014 Sun Devils have forced just eight, which puts them in a tie for 95th among FBS teams. 

With a defense still very much developing and a schedule filled with potent offenses, ASU will surrender yards. They will need their defense to make more of the impact plays and force more turnovers if they want to keep those yards from becoming points.

Most Important Game: at Arizona

It's the most anticipated game of the year, but this year's Duel in the Desert could be full of postseason implications.

Both the Sun Devils and Wildcats are currently 5-1 and rank in the Top 15. While the heated rivalry and combined offensive firepower already made their Nov. 28 showdown a can't-miss affair, a possible division title at stake could make it a legendary game.