It was certainly not the start to the season that ASU fans had envisioned. The Sun Devils were outclassed by the Aggies of Texas A&M Saturday night in Houston. The Aggies scored on special teams, dominated on defense and received just enough offense to top the Sun Devils in front of a national audience.
The season is still young, and ASU still has at least 11 more opportunities to prove they belong in the national conversation. Here are my takeaways from Saturday night's defeat.
1. The ASU Secondary is Very Good: Coming into the this game, Todd Graham and the defensive coaching staff were concerned with Texas A&M's wide receivers. With Ricky Seals-Jones, Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil and Christian Kirk, the Aggies featured a mix of physicality and speed.
For the most part, the Texas A&M wide receivers were held in check. Yes, Kirk burned ASU for a 66-yard touchdown, but that was on a bubble screen on a play that ASU wasn't properly lined up for. Besides that play, A&M's longest pass play was for 36 yards.
Kweishi Brown had a very good game as he, along with Jordan Simone, both intercepted passes. Armand Perry led ASU with 11 total tackles and Lloyd Carrington finished with six stops on the night. There were times where they were beat, but for the most part the ASU secondary held up well against a daunting task.
2. ASU Special Teams is Still a Work in Progress: Much was made all preseason camp about new special teams coach Shawn Slocum coming over from the Green Bay Packers.
Well, his unit did not have a great night.
In the first half, ASU surrendered a 79-yard punt return touchdown to the aforementioned Kirk. ASU also committed a costly roughing the punter penalty that extended a Texas A&M drive in the second half.
De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes returned three punts for just 21 yards and four kickoffs for 73 yards. Matt Haack averaged 42 yards per punt (with a whopping 10 punts on the day). The Sun Devils have surrendered six return touchdowns in three-plus years under Graham (stat courtesy of Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic). While it is only one game, the special teams still have a ways to go.
What could cause some concern is many of ASU's best players also play on special teams, so the fix is not to just move starters on special teams. The issue for ASU in the past has been taking bad angles while covering kicks and poor tackling. Both were on display Saturday night.
3. Evan Goodman and Billy McGehee Struggled: It's hard to accurately grade Goodman because he was lining up against perhaps the best defensive end in the nation. Myles Garrtett controlled the game for Texas A&M, finishing with eight total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. There were a few times Garrett jumped the snap so well he was in the backfield before Goodman even broke out of his stance.
McGehee squared off against Daeshon Hall most of the night and did not fare too much better. Mike Bercovici was sacked nine times, and the bigger problem is how that affects the game plan. It is very difficult to take shots down the field when you cannot give your quarterback time to throw. Again, it is just one game and ASU will probably not see a more talented defensive line all season than Texas A&M's.
4. The ASU Receivers Struggled to Get Open: D.J. Foster led all players with six catches, albeit for just 48 yards. The longest reception of the night came from Ellis Jefferson, who caught a 33-yard "bomb" from Bercovici in the second half. It was a very inconsistent night for the wide receivers, as Devin Lucien caught just two passes, "Gump" caught six passes or only 13 yards.
Most people, especially on social media, were questioning the play call of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell. While it is true that ASU did not take many shots down the field, the pieces have to be in place for them to do so. If Bercovici does not have time to take a five or seven step drop and look downfield, Norvell can't call a lot of vertical passes. On Saturday, Bercovici definitely did not have time to take those shots.
When the longer passing plays were called, it was clear the ASU receivers had a difficult time creating separation. This caused Bercovici to either attempt to run, take a sack or dump the ball off underneath.
5. The Sky is Not Falling: While it was clear that the Sun Devils were not in the class of Texas A&M Saturday night, the sky is not falling. First of all, this game does not affect the Pac-12 South or ASU's ability to get to Santa Clara. The odds of Arizona State finishing the year 15-0 were slim in the first place and this game presents a lot of good film for the Sun Devils to look at and improve upon.
At the end of the day, Texas A&M had better players and the Sun Devils played one of their worst games under Graham in terms of penalties and execution. The good news for ASU is they have two non-conference home games in the next two weeks to work out some of the bugs before conference play begins.