Takes and Trends: Five items to track after ASU's Week 2 loss

Posted: Updated:

It was a night to forget for Arizona State.

Their Week 2 loss to San Diego State featured major breakdowns in all three phases of the game, and it marked ASU's first-ever loss to the Aztecs in 12 meetings.

The Sun Devils will now look to regroup as they prepare for a tough road trip to face the potent Texas Tech Red Raiders on Saturday.

In this week’s Takes and Trends, we’ll examine five key issues to come out of the Sun Devils’ 30-20 loss.

Nowhere to run

“We’re a run, play-action football team.”

That was an oft-repeated refrain from ASU head Todd Graham throughout the offseason. After the hiring of Billy Napier as the team’s third offensive coordinator in three years, Graham was adamant that a successful run-first attack would return to game day.

So far this season, it has...for the opposition.

Through two games, ASU is being outgained on the ground 430-123. Opponents are averaging 5.9 yards per carry. ASU? Just 1.8. Those figures rank ASU 124th among the 130 FBS teams in rushing offense, and only three teams are gaining less per carry than the Sun Devils.

Not ideal.

“We have got to run the ball better than that,” Graham said after the game. “We had no running game. We had to rely on the big play. We gave up too many negatives. Right now, we are not playing very well.”

Without the foundation of a reliable running game, the ASU offense has been out of sync through much of two games. When they aren’t hitting on a big play, their drives have stalled out. That’s put additional pressure on their young and rebuilding defense, whose issues we’ll discuss in a bit.

A significant part of the struggles has been the absence of ASU’s two best options out of the backfield. Demario Richard had just one carry in the opener before a knee injury knocked him out of the game, and Kalen Ballage was forced out of the game with an injury against SDSU. That’s not to be overlooked.

However, the biggest issue has been...

The OL is on fire

Last week, the poor offensive line play was a take. We’re now officially moving it to the trend category after another dismal showing.

The bottom line is that ASU has been getting consistently beaten in the trenches. We already covered the ugly numbers with the ground game. With the offensive line being pushed around at the point of the attack, ASU’s running backs have routinely been getting hit in the backfield. Those failures, in turn, have made ASU into a one-dimensional offense. That plays right into the hands of opposing coaches.

“They were going to air it out anyway because they can’t run it,” SDSU head coach Rocky Long said about ASU’s offense.

ASU’s blocking fortunes have fared no better in pass protection. SDSU notched five sacks on Saturday night, bringing the Sun Devils’ season total allowed to 12. Only Auburn (7.0/game) is giving up more sacks per game through the first two weeks than ASU.

When he isn’t being sacked, quarterback Manny Wilkins is being pressured and hurried on most of his pass attempts. Wilkins has shown that he can be a capable passer when given time, but he has been prone to ending his reads quickly and trying to scramble. With defenders frequently bearing down on him, that bad habit is now becoming a survival instinct.

ASU has plenty of weapons to yield on offense, but until they get better up front, those will remain holstered.

Old habits die hard

If anything characterized ASU’s struggles over the last two seasons, it was their inability to prevent big plays from the opponents.

Last year, the Sun Devils gave up 33 plays of 40 or more yards, the most in the country. In 2015, the total was 30, also the worst in the nation.

It also hasn’t just been the defense allowing game-breaking plays. On kickoff coverage, ASU ranked 125th in the FBS in 2016 and next-to-last in 2015, surrendering three return touchdown (plus one punt return score, in 2015) over that span.

Saturday night added two more crushing blows.

The Sun Devils had SDSU pinned at their own five-yard line on a third-and-six. Suddenly, the defense was watching SDSU running back Rashaad Penny sprinting 95 yards for a touchdown.

They weren’t the only ones watching, either. Thanks to Sun Devil Stadium’s new video board, Penny had a good mid-play look at himself.

“I always look at the video board, that’s just something we do,” said Penny of his run. “Once I saw no one was running after me, I kind of slowed down. It’s just exciting.”

He was also just getting started.

After ASU had tied the game on the final play of the first quarter, Penny took the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. He later added a 33-yard touchdown catch—on a third-and-21, no less—in the third quarter.

Coming off two disastrous seasons, and with a new defensive coordinator and an almost entirely new starting secondary, no one expected the ASU defense to suddenly become a formidable unit overnight. There are going to be painful growing pains. A turnaround was always going to be a gradual process.

Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, that means that many bad habits are still hanging around.

Identity crisis

So ASU is not the run-play action team that Graham had hoped. They’re not really a passing team. They’re definitely not a stout defensive team, nor one that produces enough big plays to be considered opportunistic. They’ve shown some serious breakdowns on special teams.

So what are the Sun Devils?

They’d like to know, too.

"We have to find what our identity is,” Graham said after Saturday’s game.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect for fans is that ASU has the components to assume many positive identities.

The Sun Devils have the wide receivers and running backs to be a dynamic offense. They possess a defensive front that can wreak havoc in an opponent's backfield. Potential is present, but other elements needed to reach it are missing.

They'll need to find them quickly. 

Arizona State will be facing an elite passing offense this week in Texas Tech. After that, they return home to open Pac-12 play against the resurgent and high-tempo rushing attack of Oregon. Then it's off to the Bay Area for a showdown with the brute physicality of Stanford before what figures to be a much-needed bye week.

Three tough opponents. Three distinct identities.

One burning question for ASU: Who are we?

Light my fire

Following Saturday's game, defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood was asked about facing Texas Tech. After his response, Wilkins jumped it.

"The season isn't over. That's like a 'your season's over' question," Wilkins said. "We just go to the next game and play ball. That's what we're here to do. Sometimes you're going to lose a game. It's going to happen, so you just have to go to the next game and that's it."

The abrupt change in topic, from a question about the Red Raiders' offense to an answer about saving the season, spoke volumes. The Sun Devils are feeling pressure. The normally low-key Wilkins spoke with more emotion in his voice than usual, and sadly, it may have been the most fire any Sun Devil displayed on Saturday.

Playing with intensity has been an issue dating back to the end of last season. Remember last year's Territorial Cup game? If you are an ASU fan, perhaps it's best that you don't.

At times Saturday night, ASU appeared to be sleepwalking their way through the game. The Sun Devils have more talent and better players than the Aztecs. San Diego State had more desire and a more cohesive approach. 

There is plenty of time for ASU to turn things around. They are 1-1, and have 10 games to go. They have many talented players at several key positions. 

But the first and most essential step is wanting it. Needing it. Perhaps taking a bad loss at home will be the wake up call ASU has needed since last October. 

If not...well, at least the NFL is back in season.

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved