(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
A variety of questions, doubts and concerns were magnified in the midst of No. 19 USC’s 28-point shellacking of Arizona State. The Sun Devils failed to tackle, failed to establish any sort of rhythm on offense, and overall ASU was straight-up outplayed in most if not all aspects of the game.
But the most concerning of all trends is something else, something different.
For potentially the first time since Todd Graham arrived in 2011, the Sun Devils are without anything close to an on-field identity this season.
That’s not to be taken as an abolishment of the trends and traits of ASU under Graham. The Sun Devil defense is still attack-heavy, sending a high volume of blitzes and pressure packages at its opponents. The offense strives to be a high-octane, high-tempo machine under the tutelage and play calling of Mike Norvell.
And yet, it still feels like ASU has yet to establish a selfhood when the ball snaps. If you ask the players, they will tell you, more or less, the same message: they feel confident in their teammates, they want to be 1-0 on the day, continue to improve, and the team is a brotherhood.
In that aspect, the culture of the program is solidified. But on the field, especially against USC, the performances are far from solid.
It was hard to predict how ASU’s experienced defensive unit would perform against its first classic offense after a pair of triple-options and an air raid team. At its best, the Sun Devils put out a so-so performance to digest in film-sessions over the course of the next few days.
They gave up seven passing plays in excess of 20 yards, and although the Sun Devils did rack up eight tackles for loss, they only tallied two sacks. For the majority of the night redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler had a nice pocket to work from with plenty of time, and he took advantage of it. Looking very much like a Heisman candidate, Kessler carved ASU’s defense at will, going 19-for-33 for 375 yards and five touchdowns.
With ASU putting minimal pressure on the Trojan quarterback, it forced the secondary to make plays in space which is nothing new within the defensive scheme, but against USC, it became an issue.
This was on display early when sophomore linebacker DJ Calhoun had a free shot at Kessler and absolutely whiffed. USC would convert the third down (again), and eventually, score a touchdown to stretch its lead to 14-0 early in the second quarter.
The continuous tackling issues were enough to warrant concerns from former ASU field safety Damarious Randall.
They really can't tackle 😂😂😂✌🏿️✌🏿
— Damarious Randall (@RandallTime) September 27, 2015
On the offensive side of the ball, the Sun Devils welcomed the season debut of sophomore running back Kalen Ballage.
Although he was surely not at 100 percent as he recovers from mononucleosis, he was still able to 30 yards on nine carries. Still yet, ASU shot itself in the foot with turnovers. That’s the obvious part.
The game would be distinctly different if the 95-yard fumble return never happened. ASU might’ve punched it in from the one-yard line – although the Sun Devils have proven that is easier said than done – and thus made the score 21-7. But that fumble did happen, and so did the next one courtesy of redshirt junior De’Chavon Hayes.
So other than the turnovers, how did ASU look on offense? OK, at best. The Sun Devils were not the normal, uptempo, no-huddle unit that is often associated with Norvell-coached attacks. Instead, in an attempt to keep Kessler and crew off the field, ASU tried to milk clock, and it eventually won out the time of posession battle by almost eight full minutes.
With that in mind, the Sun Devils’ passing attack still looked shaky. Redshirt senior Mike Bercovici hit junior tight end Kody Kohl on an open seam route, but Kohl dropped what could’ve been a big gain and potential touchdown.
Bercovici also tossed up another bad interception into double-coverage, and ASU’s passing attack has yet to truly take flight this season, which was potentially the last thing people were doubting coming into the season. This rendition of the Bercovici-orchestrated offense is a far cry from the one that tossed over 500 yards and five touchdowns in last season’s victory over the Trojans.
For a stretch, Kohl was the leading receiver for the Sun Devils. He would finish with five receptions for 63 yards, but by the time the Sun Devils got senior D.J. Foster and redshirt senior Gary Chambers involved, the game was well out of reach.
This may not be a pass-heavy, read-option attack that it was under the direction of Taylor Kelly and Jaelen Strong, but at the very least, the most consistent threat for the Sun Devil offense has been Demario Richard. He racked up 131 yards on 14 carries and found the end zone twice.
Outside of the sophomore running back, ASU hasn’t had a consistent contributer emerge yet this season. Redshirt senior Devin Lucien was trending toward being that guy before going down with a hamstring injury against New Mexico, and he was clearly limited by the injury as he did not haul in a single pass.
Special teams are another story, and one that is highlighted – or lowlighted – by the fact that the normally reliable junior Zane Gonzalez missed two attempts against USC and is now at 3-for-6 on the season.
While each aspect seems inherently fixable and easily adjustable, it begs the questions as to what exactly these Sun Devils are. Are they a side that wants to put pressure on the quarterback? Are they a unit that can succeed that way? Is the offense going to rely on the arm talent of Bercovici or will it morph into featuring its sophomore stud at tailback more often? These are the questions surrounding Graham at the moment, but if you ask the players, they remain upbeat.
Somehow, they remain upbeat, focused on themselves and if you take their words for it, they are looking to constantly get better on the practice field.
With that in mind, it didn’t translate onto the field, which is where it obviously matters most. ASU is a team that is floating between several different realms of the college football world. That’s to be expected when a team that was once a sexy, dark horse pick to make the College Football Playoff has underperformed against inferior competition and then looked inferior against what was supposed to be an equal side.
Bercovici says he still sees this team as a “championship-caliber” team, and Simone reiterated that notion, saying his confidence in the team won’t ever waver.
Although it is nice to see guys buy into a program philosophy, Graham hit it on the head moving forward: ASU has to start winning. The hyperbolistic talk surrounding this team was once something people bought into from an outsider’s perspective, especially considering that Graham regularly billed – and still bills – this team as the best one he has had at the school.
It’s time to start playing like one, and that means establishing an identity. If ASU doesn’t do either of those things, it could get worse as soon as Saturday when the Sun Devils head to Los Angeles to take on UCLA.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.