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ASU Football: Despite loss to Texas A&M, Sun Devils still have reasons for optimism

(Photo: Tyler Paley/WCSN)


A 38-17 score could mean a lot of things.

And for No. 15 Arizona State, that score meant exposure in the worst type of ways.

Instead of the game being a coming out party for a high-flying offense led by Mike Bercovici, featuring D.J. Foster out wide, the Sun Devils sputtered to 291 total yards on offense while Bercovici was sacked nine times.

Instead of the defense flying around and pressuring Kyle Allen and Texas A&M’s offense, the Sun Devils were gashed for a couple of game-changing, explosive touchdowns from freshman Christian Kirk.

And instead of newly hired ASU special teams coach Shawn Slocum amending the special teams unit that has been a thorn in head coach Todd Graham’s side for the better part of three seasons, ASU gave up a 79-yard punt return from Christian Kirk to go along with a roughing the punter penalty against sophomore Coltin Gerhart. Although the drive would come to an eventual halt, that play was a microcosm of the unit.

Despite the final 21-point gap when the clock showed zeros, this was a closer game than that, but at the same time, it wasn’t.

ASU trailed TAMU 17-14 heading into the fourth quarter, but the Sun Devils never truly sniffed the lead.

Much has been made from Kirk’s debut on the national stage, especially considering the freshman carved ASU for two touchdowns, but the real gap stemmed from TAMU’s pass rush keeping ASU from doing anything that looked close to a Norvell-coached offense.

Junior defensive end Daeshon Hall led the way statistically with four sacks, but sophomore Myles Garrett was the true hassle for the ASU offensive line.

ASU redshirt left tackle Evan Goodman wasn’t even out of his stance by the time Garrett blasted his way into the backfield to force a Bercovici fumble.

Given the TAMU-heavy crowd, the noise-level inside NRG Stadium might have contributed to a successful pass rush for the Aggies. It forced ASU to stay with a consistent snap count, and ASU senior center Nick Kelly may have been tipping the snap in a way the TAMU defensive line could read. That’s more speculation than anything, but all factors could be considered in that realm.

With a lack of protection, ASU’s aerial attack was reduced to just under five yards per pass, which is a far cry from what most expected. The running attack became stale as well, and with sophomore Kalen Ballage back in Tempe due to a last-minute illness, ASU’s ground game managed a whopping 92 yards between Foster, Richard and redshirt junior De’Chavon Hayes.

The Sun Devils’ lone touchdown-drives came after redshirt senior Demetrius Cherry returned a fumble inside the 5-yard line, which led to a Kody Kohl touchdown reception, and a 19-yard scamper by Bercovici.

Outside of those drives, ASU was forced to punt 10 times, and its longest drive (13 plays, 70 yards) ended in a 23-yard field goal by junior Zane Gonzalez to bring ASU within seven points with 4:16 remaining in the fourth quarter.

So with less than five minutes to go, this game was very much within ASU’s grasp before Kirk took a bubble screen 66 yards to the house.

As bad as that sounds, seems and truly was, ASU is OK.

That’s right. The Sun Devils are just fine.

Naturally, a 21-point loss on national TV in a game against an unranked (but slightly favored) opponent is anything but ideal, but ASU’s season is not over after Week 1.

Sure, seeing Kirk — an Arizona product, in case you haven’t heard about that already — gain 224 all-purpose yards while the entire ASU offense racked up just 67 more yards as a unit hurts, but that’s not to say the offense is dead in the water. It’s difficult to get anything going when the game plan shifts to doing anything to minimize a relentless pass rush.

Give credit where credit is due: TAMU defensive coordinator John Chavis did exactly what he was brought in from LSU to do. The defense was relentless, disciplined and looked nothing like the worst unit in the SEC that it was a season ago.

And as hard as it may be to grasp, ASU’s defense wasn’t all that bad either. Maybe this perspective is overly optimistic, but take away Kirk’s bubble screen touchdown, and Allen and freshman Kyler Murray combined to toss for 181 yards and two interceptions.

With that in mind, Murray was a change-of-pace hassle that gave ASU problems early. On six attempts, the highly-touted freshman rushed for 69 yards. Although no drives Murray was involved in led to scoring drives, it kept ASU’s offense off the field, without the ball and without momentum.
The nature by which Murray’s yards came was also demoralizing for the Sun Devil defense.

ASU seemed to have a decent pass rush on several occasions, but Murray’s shiftiness got him out of what would have been a handful of tackles for big losses. Instead, he broke contain for first downs.

ASU seemed to have a decent pass rush on several occasions, but Murray’s shiftiness got him out of what would have been a handful of tackles for big losses. Instead, he broke contain for first downs.

In many ways, it was a summary of the game: Right when ASU had Murray stopped in his tracks, he would find a way out of trouble and into a space to expose gaps in the Sun Devil side.

With that in mind, – and without ignoring the disappointment for Graham and his team – ASU’s season is not a hellfire. The path to a Pac-12 Championship game is still very much within reach although it may be harder to visualize after Saturday’s display.

The preseason hype was not unwarranted. As Graham said several times leading up to the opener, the hype comes from building something that people notice. The tools are all there for ASU to take the South, and now that these issues – offensive line play, gaps in the defense, etc. – have been spotlit, they can be amended if not fully fixed.

With all due respect to Cal Poly and New Mexico, ASU has a chance to get a couple of get-well games under its belts at home before Pac-12 South favorites USC march into Sun Devil Stadium on September 26. That gives Graham and his staff nearly three weeks to conjure up a plan to patch up some holes on the team.

The sky is not falling. It may be a little cloudier than expected, but it is also college football. Anything can happen; anything happens all the time.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at

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