(Photo: Courtney Pedroza/WCSN)
By the numbers, Arizona State’s offense looks great. In two games the Sun Devils have put up nearly 1,200 yards and 103 points on their way to a 2-0 record.
But this isn’t an ESPN show. Numbers do lie.
Putting up a ton of yards and a ton of points against competition that can be described as weak at best means exactly nothing. The first half of ASU’s victory over New Mexico Saturday night raised some serious questions about just how good the Sun Devil offense really is.
New Mexico’s defense entered the game shorthanded but that did not stop the Lobos from putting consistent pressure on Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly. ASU’s offensive line struggled in pass protection and the resulting pressure forced Kelly to either use his legs – which he did, rushing for 84 yards – or make inaccurate throws.
Kelly did not get much help from the receiving corps either. The Sun Devils’ receivers struggled to get open, even when the Lobos blitzed with six or seven men. Many of Kelly’s throws were into coverage including a 24-yard pass into double coverage to Jaelen Strong, who, aside from that touchdown catch, disappeared for most of the game.
After 10 receptions in the team’s opener, Strong caught only three passes for 54 yards on four targets against the Lobos. The one incompletion to Strong was an off-target throw because of pressure on Kelly, but was still a ball that should have been caught.
Obviously for this game, many of these issues didn’t matter because the Lobos’ defense wore down in the second half. The Sun Devils won by 35 points and put up over 600 yards of offense, mostly from D.J. Foster (270 yards from scrimmage) and Cameron Smith (77 receiving).
But the Sun Devils’ ultimate goal is not to beat New Mexico, a team they probably could have only lost to if they had literally not shown up. The ultimate goal is to win a Pac-12 championship. In order to accomplish that, they’re going to have to beat teams with second- and third-string players on defense that are better than New Mexico’s starters.
Teams like Stanford and UCLA are not going to spot ASU a 22-point lead in the first quarter or run completely out of gas in the fourth. They are not going to lose containment on Kelly and allow him or Foster to run wild. If Strong disappeared against New Mexico’s depleted secondary, how is he going to do against USC? The Sun Devils still do not have an established No. 2 or 3 receiver and the tight end position still has zero catches on the season. Who is going to step up in those roles and take the pressure off Strong and Kelly and Foster?
Many people will be misled by the numbers and shrug these things off, but these are major issues for ASU. They don’t have a well-established defense to fall back on like last year. The offense is expected to carry the team this year as the defense rebuilds. While the Sun Devils have shown flashes on offense at times, other times they have looked “like the Keystone Cops,” as CBS Sports Network color commentator Aaron Taylor phrased it during Saturday’s game.
Fortunately, the Sun Devils have two weeks to prepare for what head coach Todd Graham calls the “gauntlet,” a four game stretch against UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington.
The problem is, with the defense still needing a lot of work and special teams becoming a point of emphasis, two weeks may not be enough.
You can follow Matt Harden on Twitter @MattHarden_