By Charles Wulf
TEMPE, Ariz. — Once again, last week did not go according to plan for Arizona State. The Sun Devils were supposed to blow out an FCS team at home and get back on track to fighting for a Pac-12 Title. However, ASU did not meet expectations in their week two win against Cal Poly. The offense was lackluster and the defense struggled with the triple option. With conference play approaching quickly, the Sun Devils need to work out the kinks against New Mexico.
Usually, early games against inferior opponents are supposed to allow a team to flex its muscles and gain confidence. A 35-21 win over Cal Poly just isn’t what you want to see. Last year the Sun Devils beat New Mexico 58-23 in Albuquerque, racking up 621 yards with 423 on the ground. ASU will hope to replicate that offensive performance on Friday night in Sun Devil Stadium. The Devils have lacked explosiveness on offense in the first two weeks of the season, generating only six plays of 20 yards or more. Last season, ASU had 13 plays of 20-plus yards through two games. Obviously they’ve played tougher competition this season with the season opener against Texas A&M, but the Sun Devils only managed two plays of 20 yards or more against A&M. So far, ASU’s “high octane” attack has yet to be seen, but that should change this week (didn’t I say this last week?) as they face a New Mexico defense that gave up 600 yards to Tulsa in a 40-21 loss last Saturday.
Once again, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell will be calling plays from the coach’s box. Both Graham and Bercovici said it wasn’t an issue against Cal Poly, but the offense The offense has lacked the tempo that has been its trademark in previous seasons. At his press conference on Monday, Coach Graham addressed the need to speed things up this week.
“Talking about the tempo, is just us understanding that we want to go fast. Obviously, the first first down is the key,” Graham said. “When you see those big chunk gains, when you get a big gain, we should be going warp speed. That’s something we’re working really hard on this week.”
Injuries to key players have not helped in ASU’s effort to get back on track. Safety Armand Perry will not play Friday night and running back Gump Hayes is doubtful after both sustained injuries against Cal Poly. Running back Kalen Ballage is still out with mono and offensive tackle Billy McGehee is still banged up. Constant shuffling of personnel this early in the season makes it hard for a team to create chemistry and rhythm.
Missing Ballage has been huge for ASU. Graham spoke about how having him in the backfield with Demario Richard gives the offense more flexibility. Graham said that with Ballage, they can use DJ Foster the way they intended, which is getting him the ball in space.
“Obviously I’d like to see [Foster] catch some hot passes, some screens, some bubbles, and let him get out there and get running,” Graham said. “One of the things that we need to get going is just more opportunities catching the ball quick and letting our guys run with it.”
ASU lacks a big wide out that can win jump balls and out-size smaller defensive backs. Last season Jaelen Strong was that guy and he made a living off back shoulder fades. Currently, the Sun Devils have some speedy receivers, but no one with size like Strong. Graham also mentioned the importance of getting the ball to Devin Lucien and Tim White quickly to let them utilize their speed.
ASU will also hope to do a better job holding onto the ball. Graham has harped on ball security since arriving in Tempe but the Devils have struggled with turnovers two games into the season. Last year at this time, ASU had given up only one turnover, but this season the Devils have already coughed up the ball five times.
Defensively the Sun Devils are facing another triple option team. New Mexico runs the option differently though, operating out of the shotgun and pistol. The Lobos will also throw the ball more than Cal Poly did. The defense had trouble stopping the dive last week but should be better prepared to take on New Mexico having faced this offense last season. The defense needs to play assignment football and keep the Lobos from eating up the clock. Graham said that against Cal Poly, too many guys were “freelancing” and not playing their assignments.
“They’re [New Mexico] very explosive. They gave us fits last year,” Graham said. “Very well-coached football team. Big play capabilities. We just got to be assignment-oriented and take care of your responsibilities, that’s the big part of it for us.”
Staying healthy will be a concern for this defense. Graham expressed his displeasure with cut blocks after the Cal Poly game and again in his press conference on Monday. Option attacks are difficult to prepare for and are unlike anything else the Devils will see this season.
Overall, the Sun Devils should exploit a porous New Mexico defense. This game holds more importance than it did before the season started. This is the last chance for the Sun Devils to tune up the offense before they enter conference play against USC. They absolutely cannot play like they did against Cal Poly and expect to win Pac-12 games, especially in the South.
“This game is important just like any other game,” Graham said. “But it’s very, very important we have momentum going into conference play the next week.”