Takes and Trends: Five items to track after ASU's Week 4 win

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The Streak is over.

After 10 consecutive defeats and 4,740 days, Arizona State finally beat the Oregon Ducks.

ASU’s 37-35 victory on Saturday night was a much needed jump start to the Sun Devils’ season following two straight defeats. In toppling the No. 24-ranked team in the nation, ASU opened Pac-12 play 1-0 and helped to restore some confidence in both the program and head coach Todd Graham.

In this week’s Takes and Trends, we’ll examine some of the major developments and questions raised in the win.

Ground and Pound

Late in the fourth quarter, ASU had fallen behind for the first time in the game. In a must-score situation, the Sun Devils found themselves at the most critical juncture of their young season.

So they turned to their workhorse.

On the first play of the drive, Demario Richard took a handoff for eight yards. The next, he went for four. Then he showed a powerful burst for 13 yards.

In those three plays, ASU put the Oregon defense on their heels and moved the ball nearly to midfield. They set a physical tone on their way to the eventual game-winning field goal. It was also another key step as the Sun Devils’ solidify their offensive identity.

In the first two games of the year, ASU’s ground game was dreadful. They totaled just 128 yards in the games against New Mexico State and San Diego State, averaging a paltry 1.8 yards per carry.

Noticeably absent in those games was senior running back Demario Richard. He left the opener after just one carry, and the injury kept him sidelined the next week against SDSU.

He returned last week against Texas Tech, logging 15 carries for 53 yards and one touchdown. Not surprisingly, he was part of ASU’s commitment to the run that helped key their comeback bid.

That trend carried over into the win over Oregon. Richard led ASU with 21 carries and 64 yards, and he scored on a seven-yard run in the third quarter. He was the hammer of an ASU ground attack that wore down the Duck defense and kept them honest enough to allow for big plays through the air.

Along with Richard, Kalen Ballage added 47 yards on the ground, and quarterback Manny Wilkins ran for 35 yards and two touchdowns.

“You know those guys are running the ball downhill,” said Wilkins. “You know as you see it there in the second half those guys did a really good job of getting skinny in the hole and getting yards after contact and being dominant with the football in their hands.”

Now healthy, Richard—a 1,000-yard rusher in 2014—should take over as the team’s feature back. Ballage’s size and speed make him a lethal weapon in space, but Richard has proven to be the more natural and effective running back.

A ground game with Richard’s power and burst attacking the middle, complemented by Ballage’s explosiveness along the perimeter and as a receiver could prove to be the winning formula for the Sun Devils...

...If the OL Gets Better

This is now a weekly fixture in Takes and Trends: ASU needs to be much better along the offensive line.

While Richard and Ballage had their moments on the ground against Oregon, it was the team’s commitment to the run, rather than the total results, that was most encouraging. The efficiency left much to be desired.

The Sun Devils only averaged 2.7 yards per carry on Saturday, and through four games, their 2.61 yards-per-carry mark is the third-worst in the nation. ASU’s offensive line is failing to consistently win at the point of attack, and far too often there are no holes for Richard and Ballage.

Unfortunately, the struggles aren’t just limited to run blocking. On the night, ASU surrendered 13 tackles-for-loss and four sacks to Oregon. The Sun Devils’ 40 tackles-for-loss are the third-worst mark in the FBS, while only UMass has given up more sacks than ASU’s 19.

Despite some shuffling of personnel, the team’s woes in the trenches have continued.

“Eliminate the negatives,” said Graham of his offensive line. “We had a few sacks, too many negative yard plays, but we put up close to 500 yards.”

Just imagine what it could have been had the offensive line been adequate.

Real Deal N'Keal

Any 5-star recruit brings with him immense expectations. As a true freshman in 2016, wide receiver N’Keal Harry flashed his potential with some stretches of brilliant play.

In Year Two, those flashes are becoming the standard.

For the second consecutive week, Harry set a new career-high in receiving yards. Just seven days after putting up 148 against Texas Tech, Harry torched the young Duck secondary for 170 on seven receptions.

“When I look in N’Keal’s eyes I see, ‘Throw me the ball,’” Wilkins said.

So he did.

The Ducks had no answer for the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Harry. He consistently used his size and catching radius to haul in passes over defensive backs. His speed and power were on display on a dazzling catch-and-run in which he broke a pair of tackles for a big gain. Jump balls that are often a toss up are becoming a sure thing with Harry on the receiving end.

“When I throw you the ball, go get it,” said Wilkins. “There is no such thing as 50/50 balls. We always throw to receive 100 percent.”

Perhaps his biggest catch came on the final play of the third quarter. With ASU facing a third-and-27, Wilkins lobbed a deep ball up to Harry. Despite a pass interference penalty on Oregon, Harry still came down with the catch.

"That all comes back to the work we put in after practice,” Harry said. “For him to have the trust in me to throw me that ball on third down and however long, it's my job to go get it. I just wanted to make sure I came down with it.”

“He’s a big receiver and he uses his body well,” said Oregon head coach Willie Taggart of Harry. “Our guys were in good coverage, he just made some good catches.”

Each week, the Chandler, Ariz. native is taking a major step forward with his development, and the rapport between Harry and Wilkins grows stronger. ASU has produced some elite wide receivers in school history, and Harry has a chance to be the best one yet.

For now, he’s just building upon his successes, and taking advantage of opposing defenses.

"If you try to man coverage me, with no safety help over the top, that's disrespectful,” Harry said.

Even if defenses show Harry the proper respect, they may not be able to contain him.

Turnaround on Third Down

Coming into Week 4, no team had been worse in stopping opponents on third down than ASU. The Sun Devils had allowed 24 of the 44 chances to be converted, and with the nation’s top scoring offense coming to Tempe, the prospects for a turnaround seemed dim.

“This whole week we emphasized getting off the field,” said senior defensive lineman Alani Latu. “We have struggled with that the first few games on getting off the field on third downs”

Making matters more difficult was the absence of arguably ASU’s best defender, Devilbacker Koron Crump, who was out of the lineup due to a knee injury.

But that’s why they play the game.

In a heartening effort for Sun Devil fans, ASU stopped the Ducks on 10 of their 11 third down plays. For good measure, ASU also stuffed both Oregon attempts on fourth down during the game’s final minutes.

“We always talked about just finishing, and today we just had that edge, that little chip on our shoulder,” Latu said. “We just built off each other’s energy, off the offense’s energy, and just getting it done. I’m just happy we got it done.”

So are ASU fans.

The Bleeding Has Stopped...For Now

ASU halted a losing skid, ended a decade-long streak, and evened their record at 2-2. They started Pac-12 play win a key victory. The chorus of fans calling for Graham’s firing has quieted, for the time being.

Precious momentum, however much, has been gained. But will it last?

“It starts counting now,” Graham said. “We’re 1-0. We just knocked off one of the top-25 teams in the country. I couldn’t be more proud of our players. It’s a great night to be a Sun Devil.”

It was a desperately needed victory, one that helps to slow the free fall the program was in after eight defeats over the prior nine games. But it is by no means a cure-all. It's one step in the right direction. A long path still lies ahead.

The issues with the offensive line are still critical. The pass rush remains a question mark without Crump. The secondary still makes far too many mistakes. Special teams blunders continue to pop up in key moments. We've seen poor effort in two-and-a-half games, excellent intensity in the other one-and-a-half. 

There are a lot of troublesome areas on this Sun Devil team. There is also some hope.

Through four weeks, the Pac-12, especially ASU's South division, has appeared wide open. If ASU can continue to make strides and build upon their successes week-over-week, they have a shot to put together a decent season.

Perhaps downing the Ducks was the catalyst the Sun Devils needed.

“Any win feels great,” said Wilkins. “This one really felt good just because you go after two losses and your mindset is a little like, ‘We just need to get one to get this rolling.’”

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