After last season's incredible victory at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Arizona State's contest against USC was the most highly-anticipated home game of the 2015 season. Although, this time around the Trojans didn't allow the Sun Devils to hang around for some late-game drama, blowing them out by halftime.
Let's take a look at this week's grades following the matchup against the 19th-ranked team in the country.
Offensive Unit: C-
The Sun Devils actually moved the ball fairly well against the Trojans, finishing with 454 total yards and 26 first downs in over 32 minutes of possession. The problem: the Sun Devils were unable to capitalize on good-looking drives and turned the ball over at the most inopportune moments. They undoubtedly should have turned in a better performance, but costly mistakes weighed too heavily in factoring into the final result.
Have you ever been in a class where you don't understand the curriculum, do everything in your power to make it work, but are still unable to come away with the result you wanted? Mike Bercovici has been in a similar situation all season long. We've harped on it before, and we will here again—Bercovici doesn't fit the multiple-look spread offense that offensive coordinator Mike Norvell uses. This is primarily because it requires Bercovici to play out of his element, having to implement the read-option and use his feet as opposed to being a stationery pocket passer.
With that being said, it's only Week 4. While there's no Jaelen Strong out there to be a reliable playmaker, it's concerning that Bercovici still hasn't fixed many of his own basic mechanical flaws that were apparent in his game last year, which directly resulted in multiple off-target and missed-timed throws against the Trojans. Bercovici still needs to improve as a passer, and that was apparent in his stat line, as he completed 23-of-44 passes for 272 yards (including a 12.2 QBR rating). Subsequently, the offense sputtered, going as far as he was able to carry them.
Running Backs: B-
Yes, there was the fumble inside the five-yard line. Yes, before that there was a fumble on the opening possession. Both are credited to Demario Richard. However, the argument should be and can be made that he wasn't fully responsible for either, as frustrating as the one outside of the goal-line is. In light of this, Richard (14 carries, 131 yards, TD) was the Sun Devils most effective offensive player throughout the entire game.
In his first game returning from mononucleosis, Kalen Ballage finished with nine carries for 30 yards and tailback De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes (4 carries, 27 yards) also contributed. It's crystal clear that it's ASU's three-deep backfield that is the most serviceable part of the offensive unit.
Wide Receivers: C-
D.J. Foster's (6 receptions, 67 yards) full-time transition just hasn't been reformed enough to have a key impact, and the group really lacked a consistent punch throughout much of the contest against the Trojans. While it was nice to see Gary Chambers (5 receptions, 103 yards) emerge late in the game, the Sun Devils could have really used the production earlier in the game as drops and miscommunication marred the performance.
Arizona State can't trust a random breakout performance to occur from one of the many players in this unit every week, and until they can rely on one of them to be dependable, the group will continue to turn in mediocre showings.
Tight Ends: C
Kody Kohl (5 receivers, 63 yards) was the team's leading receiver for a majority of the game, and he's proven to be Bercovici's favorite target over the course of the season, thus far. Still, a drop by Kohl stalled a potential scoring drive in the first half while ASU still had a chance, and Raymond Epps' drop outside of the end zone necessitated a Richard run to finish off a last-ditch scoring drive.
Offensive Line: D+
If we were just giving this group a grade for its work in the running game, they'd have earned a much higher grade. Instead, ASU decided to pass the ball over 40 times and the offensive line struggled en route to giving up three sacks.
The biggest factors into the line's final grade were the team's two fumbles: the first occurred when Nick Kelly bumped into Richard before he was hit from behind by Su'a Cravens; the second occurred inside the 10-yard line when left tackle Evan Goodman got beat inside by Delvon Simmons, who met Richard and Bercovici at the mesh point of a read-option play causing a fumble returned for a 94-yard score.
Defensive Unit: C-
Why wasn't this grade much lower? Todd Graham is known for his blitz-heavy, aggressive defensive packages that he uses to dictate what opposing offenses can do. The problem on Saturday was that he wasn't able to do that, rather his stubbornness in adjusting to what the Trojans presented proved to be the team's downfall.
Defensive Line: C+
Despite having one of the best offensive lines in the country, the Trojans backfield was fairly neutralized for a majority of the game. The defensive line wasn't able to disrupt the passing game fully, but the Sun Devils routinely forced USC's offense into third-down-and-long plays. JoJo Wicker was the lone defensive lineman to come away with a sack, and he also racked up two tackles for a loss, and Tashon Smallwood, Viliami Latu and Renell Wren each logged a TFL, too.
Salamo Fiso (8 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack) was all over the field and Antonio Longino (5 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 FR) was also pretty effective Saturday night. In coming after the passer during blitzes, the linebackers weren't able to finish the job and apply the necessary pressure to disrupt Cody Kessler.
The flats and the middle of the field were often vacated by the linebackers on passing plays (which was more relative to scheme than anything), but overall the group did pretty well.
The loss of Damarious Randall has loomed large over ASU in trying to find a replacement starter at field safety. True freshman Kareem Orr (four tackles, one interception) was solid, but it was veteran Jordan Simone (8 tackles) who struggled. Simone was beaten on three of USC's five passing touchdowns, taking poor pursuit angles on two of them.
The USC offense managed to tally nine explosive plays against the ASU defense. Although they can mostly be attributed to the aggressive play-calling of Graham, the shoddy tackling and inability to contain Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster is the reason the group's grade isn't high.
Special Teams: D+
Last season, Nelson Agholor ripped the ASU special teams unit for a long punt return touchdown. That didn't happen this time around, but it wasn't a perfect performance from the Sun Devils.
Field Goal Specialist: D+
Zane Gonzalez missed two field goals, however they were each from long distances of 47 and 52 yards out.
Punter/Punt Coverage Team: C+
Matt Haack forced two fair catches on Saturday night. However, of his two returnable punts, the coverage unit allowed Adoree Jackson to reel off one for a 45-yard return, before containing him to an 8-yard return.
Kickoff Specialist/Kickoff Coverage Team: A+
Avoiding the talent of Jackson, Gonzalez managed to kick each of his three kickoffs into the end zone to force three touchbacks, giving the best returner in the nation no chance of changing the course of the game.
Hayes' fumble right before the end of the first half parlayed into a 14-point turnover in the span of 22 seconds. Tim White notched five returns for 97, including a 25-yarder.