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Arizona State still searching for offensive mojo as Pac-12 play begins

Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici (2) scores a touchdown as New Mexico cornerback Nias Martin (19) defends during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Todd Graham has to put a brave face on Sun Devil football after three weeks of the 2015 season.

It’s his job to instill confidence in his players heading into Pac-12 play. It’s his job to market this program — a job he’s done better than any previous ASU football coach.

But as Graham and quarterback Mike Bercovici danced around questions concerning Arizona State’s offensive mojo at Monday’s weekly press conference, it was hard to believe their skin-deep bravado and robotic victory speak were anything more than made-for-media sound bites.

“I feel just as good about our team as we did Day 1 before we kicked it off,” Graham said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence and belief in them.”

There were signs of progress in Saturday’s 34-10 victory over New Mexico. When Bercovici finally resolved to pull the ball and run in the zone read, he gained seven, six and eight yards on three plays. With the defense having to honor that threat, the offense finally appeared to open up.

Bercovici completed 22 of 37 for 317 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in the game, and at one point, he threw 10 straight completions.

Before we label this real progress, however, let’s remember that any offensive rhythm the Sun Devils found came only in the second half against a team tabbed to finish last in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division — a team against which Graham’s stepping-stone school, Tulsa, rang up 40 points the week before.

The competition takes a decided uptick over four of the next five weeks when the Sun Devils face No. 19 USC, No. 9 UCLA, No. 13 Oregon and No. 18 Utah. One team is going to leave Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday with its College Football Playoff hopes dashed.

“No one needs a pregame speech for this week,” Bercovici said of Saturday’s matchup with the Trojans. “This is what we work for.”

Can work fix what is ailing the Devils?

When Graham said this offseason that the offense wouldn’t change much with Bercovici at the helm, analysts and fans alike wondered why.

The most glaring differences between Bercovici and his predecessor, Taylor Kelly, are easy to see. Bercovici has a bigger arm and is capable of stretching the field more than Kelly with his downfield passes. Kelly is more mobile than Bercovici so he’s better equipped to operate elements of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s zone read.

Wasn’t it Graham that said after the Texas A&M game: “Personnel should drive what you’re doing, not scheme.”

As it turns out, there was a reason the Sun Devils didn’t modify their offense to fit Bercovici’s skill-set, intended or not.

They can’t. Not yet, anyway.

The Sun Devils are still rotating offensive tackles Evan Goodman, Billy McGehee and Sam Jones in an effort to consistently protect Bercovici, and the Sun Devils don’t have the receivers to get downfield and haul in those big passes. Two of ASU’s greatest preseason concerns have been realized over the first three games against A&M, Cal Poly and New Mexico.

Graham said Monday that those same three tackles will form a solid rotation and he believes the Sun Devils have plenty of big-play threats at receiver. The key is staying healthy at both positions. Goodman and McGehee have been dinged, receiver D.J. Foster was limited Saturday due to an injury, deep threat Tim White is slowly emerging after a hand injury limited him in camp and receiver Devin Lucien (hamstring) is doubtful for Saturday’s game.

“I think we’ve got plenty of playmaker guys. It’s just consistency and practicing and getting into rhythm and all that stuff because I know how good they are because we played really good in camp,” Graham said. “I defended them every day so I know the potential we have there.”

Before we pronounce the Sun Devils a lost cause, it’s important to remember how most outsiders felt about the future of ASU’s defense after the Sun Devils lost to UCLA, 62-27, in the fourth week of last season. There was little confidence that ASU would be able to stop anyone.

Problems can sometimes be addressed; deficiencies can be fixed.

It would have helped the Sun Devils, however, to forge that confidence in the first three weeks of the season, rather than leaving everyone guessing until kickoff on Saturday.

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