Five things Arizona State needs to accomplish vs. New Mexico
Preseason optimism around the Arizona State football program was at a level higher than we’ve seen in years.
Coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons, several were picking the Sun Devils to win the Pac-12 South, some had ASU getting into the second College Football Playoff and one even picked quarterback Mike Bercovici to win the Heisman Trophy.
Despite a lackluster 1-1 start to the season, those heights can still be reached, but the Sun Devils haven’t done anything through two games to make anyone believe that they will.
Friday night, the Devils wrap up the non-conference portion of their schedule against the New Mexico Lobos (1-1) at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. Head coach Todd Graham is still looking for a complete 60-minute effort from his team, and ASU fans are seeking the same type of performance.
Here are five things ASU needs to accomplish Friday night to rekindle some of the preseason hype heading into Pac-12 play. And yes, for the most part, these concerns are centered around the offense, which has struggled early this season.
Let Berco throw – As I stated on the air this week, Mike Bercovici throwing for nearly 1,000 yards in his first two collegiate starts last season wasn’t necessarily a good thing. First, he threw for 488 in a blowout loss to UCLA. Then, he followed it up with a magical 510-yard, five-touchdown performance against USC that ended in the now-famous “Jael Mary” touchdown to Jaelen Strong. Those numbers created a standard that’s not realistic for Bercovici — or any quarterback, really — to live up to.
The fifth-year senior has been OK so far in 2015. He’s completed 63 percent of his passes, thrown for four touchdowns and has only been intercepted once.
But we haven’t seen the vertical passing game develop just yet. Arizona State needs to try and establish this offensive ingredient early against New Mexico. Of course, there are other factors in play.
Receivers step up – Considering Strong’s early exit to the NFL and Cameron Smith’s season-ending knee injury, this position was a concern heading into 2015. It’s still a concern. Part of the problem in the passing game has been the receivers not getting open. And outside D.J. Foster (more on him later), none have developed into reliable options or consistent downfield threats.
Ellis Jefferson showed glimpses late in the Texas A&M game and Gary Chambers did the same against Cal Poly. They, along with senior Devin Lucien, need to be better.
Move Foster into the backfield – Yes, the talented senior does have 15 carries through the first two games, but he needs more than that. Foster is the best offensive weapon on the roster, and using him in the slot hasn’t proved very fruitful through the season’s two weeks. He’s been bottled up in the passing game, catching a team-high 12 passes, but for only 106 yards (8.8 yards per catch). He’s been nearly as effective on the ground, averaging 5.9 yards per pop. With Kalen Ballage still sidelined and Gump Hayes banged up, Foster needs to shoulder a bigger load in the running game, in my opinion.
Hit some big plays – Arizona State’s offense is constantly labeled as explosive. It’s more accurate to say that it’s potentially explosive, because their lack of big plays thus far has been eye-opening. The Sun Devils rank 11th in the Pac-12 in plays of 20 yards or more, with only six. Four of those came last week against Cal Poly. For comparison’s sake, the Sun Devils had eight plays of 20 or more yards in their win over USC alone last year. An increased role for speedster JUCO transfer Tim White could improve in this area. White uncorked a 59-yard run late in last week’s win over Cal Poly.
Roll early – Normally, the non-conference is a time to win going away and get some younger players valuable reps in garbage time. After all, you never know when those players could be called on once you get into Pac-12 play. ASU hasn’t been able to do that. They’ve been in two games that hung in the balance in the fourth quarter — not exactly time to empty your bench. Graham used 45 players against Texas A&M and 46 players against Cal Poly. It would be nice to see the Sun Devils ease into a victory with some second and third-stringers on the field in the fourth quarter Friday night.