ASU football's biggest shortcomings of 2014

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Earlier this week, we reviewed Arizona State football’s greatest successes this year.

Despite the disappointing end to the regular season, ASU accomplished much to be proud of, with a 9-3 record and the No. 17 ranking in the AP Poll.

Now, however, we will take a look at some of the areas where they came up short, ultimately costing them a shot at a truly special season.

The Fall of Taylor Kelly

Everything was in place for Taylor Kelly to go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks in ASU history.

Over his first two seasons, Kelly had led the Sun Devils to 18 wins, two Territorial Cup victories over Arizona, and a Pac-12 South title, all the while posting excellent numbers. Coming into his senior season, he had what seemed like a quality line in front of him, and plenty of weapons

Yet early in the year, something was just…off.

No, Kelly didn’t play poorly in wins over Weber State, New Mexico, and Colorado. ASU went 3-0 in those games. However, he simply wasn’t at the level he displayed in 2013 when he was an All-Pac-12 second team selection. His accuracy and decision making were not bad, but they were lacking.

Late in the win against Colorado, Kelly suffered a broken foot, an injury that sidelined him for three games. While he was out, Mike Bercovici won two games, put up huge numbers, and won over large portions of the fan base. Such was his performance that many fans called for Bercovici to keep the job once Kelly returned.

Kelly returned to the lineup against Washington. In harsh weather conditions, he didn’t play very well, but ASU won the game. People chalked up his performance to rust and the winds.

The next week, he was again underwhelming, but ASU beat Utah. He was just facing a very tough defense, people said.

Against Notre Dame, Kelly and ASU got off to a strong start before faltering. Kelly played poorly in the second half, including a very bad interception. In fact, there were chants of “Ber-co-vici” heard in Sun Devil Stadium in the fourth quarter. Yet again, ASU was able to hold on and get the win.

ASU was then riding high, ranked No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings, but a legitimate question was the being raised: were the Sun Devils winning in spite of their senior quarterback?

Against Oregon State, we got the answer. Yes they were.

In ASU’s stunning upset loss, Kelly had a terrible game. He missed on numerous throws and made several critical errors, including a game-clinching interception that the Beavers returned for a touchdown. Kelly simply wasn’t the same player. The confidence and swagger that he had in prior seasons was gone.

The struggles continued yet again the next week in the first half against lowly Washington State, raising a previously unfathomable question: could/would ASU bench their senior quarterback on Senior Day? Thankfully, we never had to find out, as Kelly was able to rally his team to a big win, and had the first game since his return without any interceptions.

But then it finally happened. With Kelly and the offense again struggling against Arizona, Graham benched him late in the third quarter in favor of Bercovici.

Perhaps Kelly’s foot never fully healed. Perhaps the growing “put in Bercovici” talk go to him. Perhaps he just had a bad year.

Whatever the reasons, Kelly cost the Sun Devils in 2014. This is not to say he was a bad quarterback, or that he should shoulder all of the blame, but he simply didn’t play good enough for ASU to make the most of their opportunity this season. If the 2013 version of Kelly had led this 2014 team, an argument could be made that ASU would be a playoff team right now.

But that’s not how things work.

After the loss to Arizona, Graham stated that Kelly would return to the starting lineup for the bowl game. He’ll have one more chance to get the team to 10 wins and to pad his stats.

Kelly will close his ASU career as one of the most productive and exciting quarterbacks in school history. His accomplishments on and off the field (Kelly was just named a first-team All-Academic Pac-12 member) are undeniable, and fans should be proud of how Kelly led this team for the last three years.

However, the play down the stretch likely prevented Kelly from joining the ranks of Danny White and Jake Plummer as one of the greats.

Watch Out

Of course, Kelly’s struggles in 2014 were not exclusively his fault. 

So far this year, ASU has allowed 37 sacks, and their rate of 3.08 per game ranks them in a tie with Louisville for 112th among FBS teams. That’s not good. This is not a new trend either, as ASU was 108th a year ago allowing 2.93 per game in 2013.

Most crucially, the Sun Devils have been sacked 26 times over the final six regular season games.

This wasn’t a bad offensive line from a talent or experience standpoint. Senior left tackle Jamil Douglas and left guard Christian Westerman played well for the most part, and despite battling injuries, center Nick Kelly was solid in his first season as starter. Right guard Vi Teofilo and tackle Tyler Sulka each returned this year after starting all 14 games in 2013.

Granted, both Kelly and Bercovici took avoidable sacks this year by holding onto the ball for too long. But both were often heavy fire from opposing pass rushes, and that falls on the offensive line. During some crucial stretches, the protection wasn’t sufficient to allow either quarterback to find their targets downfield.

In the end, it helped contribute to a generally disappointing second half of the season by the offense.

Big Game Letdowns

In prior years, any big game for ASU was just about a guarantee of a Sun Devil team withering under the spotlight.

That trend has greatly improved under Graham, with several marquee wins including the South-clinching road win against UCLA.

However, the Sun Devils did fall flat in several big games this season, ultimately costing them victories in winnable games.

In the Thursday night showdown with UCLA, ASU fell apart. The offense made costly errors and the defense was routinely shredded, as ASU was embarrassed at home 62-27.

While the Sun Devils jumped out to a 34-3 lead over Notre Dame in a nationally televised battle of top 10 teams. Yet, ASU wilted as the Irish stormed to within three in the game’s final minutes before the Sun Devils were able to put them away.

Perhaps the most egregious example came the next week. 

While it was not what would be traditionally called a “big game”, ASU’s performance against the 4-5 Oregon State would come to define the year. The Sun Devils were on the cusp of a playoff spot, ranked No. 6, and they were facing a Beaver team that had lost four straight games. One would figure that ASU, seeing the opportunity in front of them, would come out hunger and on fire. 

Nope.

Instead, ASU overlooked their opponents, OSU scored the upset, and the playoff dream died.

Still with much to play for in their regular season finale against Arizona, including not just the Territorial Cup and a South division title, the Sun Devils once again shot themselves in the foot.

Among the many miscues were a defensive touchdown allowed within the game’s first minute, two big scoring plays allowed, a failed goal-to-go situation, a missed field goal, and a late interception that set up the winning Wildcat touchdown. In a one-score rivalry game, that list loomed large. 

The progress that ASU has made in rising to the moment over the last three years has been encouraging, but 2014 proved that there remains plenty of hurdles yet to clear.

Seeing Red, Feeling Sad

So far this year, ASU ranks 18th in the FBS in scoring offense, averaging exactly 37 points per game. That number would be a lot better—as too would their win total—if they had a better redzone offense.

It was a scene played out far too often during the year. ASU would drive down the field, pushing the defense onto their heels, before faltering inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Yes, ASU would usually come away with points, scoring on 52 of their 58 redzone drives. That 90 percent rate ranks 14th in the nation.

However, only 36 of those found the endzone, and ASU’s 62 percent touchdown rate is just 68th among the FBS teams.

What hurt ASU the most in this area was when these failures occurred. The Sun Devils scored touchdowns on just  22 of 41 redzone drives (53.6 percent) during conference play, including the two devastating losses near the end of the season.

Against Oregon State, ASU scored just two field goals and a single touchdown in four redzone trips. Zane Gonzalez missed a 30-yard field goal, and the offense was unable to score on two possessions that reached the 12-yard line or closer. The Sun Devils lost by eight, so it’s not hard to see how that could, or should, have played out differently.

Against Arizona, the overall rate was much better: four touchdowns in five redzone drives. But that one missed opportunity will haunt ASU for some time.

In the first quarter, a bad Arizona punt gave the Sun Devils great field position, and a 21-yard Jaelen Strong reception set ASU up with a first and goal from the Wildcat three-yard-line.

Four (somewhat) predictable runs later, ASU had turned it over on downs. The Sun Devils lost by seven. The math hurts.