Last night was an incredible evening for the Sun Devil faithful, who saw an 11-point deficit with three minutes to play turn into a miraculous victory right in front of their eyes. There are still seven games left this season for the maroon and gold, and plenty didn't turn out well for the Sun Devils. A lot got lost in the smoke and haze of an improbable win and although coming off the mountaintop can be difficult, here are six takeaways from the game.
The ground game needs to improve dramatically:
The Sun Devils came into the game averaging 262.8 yards per game and had just 31 yards on 22 carries Saturday. D.J. Foster had 10 carries for 13 yards and Deantre Lewis had 15 yards on four carries as Arizona State averaged 1.4 yards per carry on the ground. The Sun Devils need to find a better balance, which will hopefully come naturally when Taylor Kelly returns to action. No one can expect whoever is under center to continue to throw for 400 yards every single week and then expect to win doing it (Looking at you Washington State).
Let's not take anything away from Bercovici's performance through. 510 yards and five touchdowns from a backup quarterback is unprecedented and every yard was necessary for Arizona State to win the game. He did it on national television, at the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and against a ranked team with how the rest of the season would play out hanging in the balance. His family was there watching, as was his high school coach, and his best friend Antwuan Woods was across the line of scrimmage.
He could have given up, knowing his time in the spotlight was waining away with Kelly's imminent return, but he stayed in the game mentally. Bercovici has oozed confidence talking with the media the past two weeks in his starting role. He knew it was within his own capabilities to lead the team to victory and it paid off.
Substitution issues need to be fixed:
Todd Graham called two of his second half timeouts within four seconds of each other with 11:50 and 11:46 left to go in the third quarter because the Sun Devils didn't have enough men on the field. Graham has chalked this up to youth and inexperience on the defensive side of the ball, but this can't continue to happen. Graham then called his last timeout of the second half with 3:25 left in the third quarter. Arizona State definitely could have used it late in the game to think things over or draw up a play on fourth down. Mike Bercovici had the presence of mind to spike the ball with 11 seconds left, but at some point the mismanagement of substitutions could cost the Sun Devils a game.
The Pac-12 South is wide open:
First of all let's just take a second and acknowledge what a phenomenal day Saturday was for the sport of college football. There were so many great games with fantastic endings, but we'll focus on the Pac-12 here. Arizona sits atop the South at 5-0, but have shown a lot of vulnerability. If it weren't for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Oregon late in the game Thursday, Arizona State would probably be tied for first in the division. Utah beat UCLA 30-28 late Saturday so it's clear there is a ton of parity.
The north is equally as crazy with Stanford now sitting at 3-2 after a loss in rainy South Bend, Indiana to Notre Dame (who Arizona State still has to play by the way). Cal sits on top the conference with a crazy win over Washington State. For what looked like a dismal outlook for the Sun Devils three weeks ago after losing Kelly, the maroon and gold are still very much in the picture for the Pac-12 South title.
Special teams issues clearly remain unresolved:
The Sun Devils didn't have Zane Gonzalez available for personal reasons but it didn't end up being an issue. What was an issue was the special teams play that almost cost this team another game. Nelson Agholor had a 53-yard punt return for a touchdown and Alex Garoutte booted one kickoff out of bounds. USC punted six times and Damarious Randall only fielded one which he muffed and recovered. Kyle Middlebrooks may be the answer on kick return since Kalen Ballage remains unproven and Middlebrooks returned five kicks for 131 yards including one 47-yard return.
Jaelen Strong is a phenomenal wide receiver:
Jaelen Strong continues to leave people picking their jaws up off the floor every week. He didn't just catch the "Jael Mary" he brought it down in stride, tracking to the ball like it was just another catch. The USC defense was horrendous on that play mind you, but it's still not an easy play to make. Strong had 10 receptions for 202 yards receiving, making him the first Arizona State wide receiver since Shaun McDonald had 204 receiving yards against Oregon in 2002 to top the 200-yard receiving mark.
Bercovici overthrew him once and they couldn't connect on a few other throws, but Strong was there when he was needed the most and once again hauled in a couple of throws he had no business at all catching. Strong gave Bercovici enough confidence to know that if he threw it in his direction Strong or nobody would come down with it, or he would just find a way to get open. He's proved once again Saturday that he deserves to be a top-20 pick in the NFL Draft next year.
Jordan Simone is the real deal:
Simone reached double digit tackles for the second time this season Saturday. His 20 tackles is the most by a defensive player in Todd Graham's tenure at Arizona State and the most by an ASU player since 1988. Graham gave Simone a shot and started him against Weber State in the first game of the season and now he's second on the team in tackles with 45 this season. He walked on, earned a scholarship and now he's stepping up in huge games.
While the pass coverage left some to be desired, it falls more on Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown. This was especially true Saturday when Kessler opted for more quick and short passes rather than trying to test the safeties' ability to help over the top.