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ASU Football: The RPO Column—Week 5

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Let’s try something new.

Northern Arizona v Arizona State Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

I thought this would be fun to do following games every week.

For those who don’t know what ‘RPO’ stands for, it stands for run/pass-option. It’s a play where a quarterback will have the option to either give the ball to the running back on a handoff or keep it himself. If the quarterback keeps it, then he’ll have the option to either pass the ball to a receiver or keep the ball and run. This season, Arizona State has incorporated the play as a focal element in its offense.

So, this is how things here are going to work: You, the reader, can comment/tweet/email/Facebook message/etc. me a topic you’d like to have discussed or a statement you believe to be true or false during or following a Sun Devils game (or I’ll come up with topics like this week).

Then, I will have three choices on how to react to your said topic/statement: I can either run with it, pass on it, or respond with options (a way for me to cop out, essentially. I’ll do my best not to, though). I’ll give reasoning for each response.

Hopefully, this is coming off much simpler than I’m making it sound. In the possible event it’s not, allow the content below to rectify that.

Before that though—every post will have a dedication to something (possibly) relevant to one of the topics we’re going to discuss, usually at the end. This week, it’s to the earliest instance I can ever recall seeing the very play this post is named after: during the 2013 Iron Bowl between Auburn Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide, when Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall hit a wide open Sammie Coates for a game-tying touchdown.

He wasn’t the developer of the play, but the mastermind behind this particular call was Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. Malzahn just so happens to be connected to ASU through both head coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey.

The first edition of this column is dedicated to his genius play-call that has become synonymously embedded into modern football.

With that said: Let’s get started.

The Sun Devils need to make changes, schematically, on defense. — Run

Let’s run with this.

Playing against two of the top four offenses in the nation is a legitimate reason for a team to have bad defensive stats. The case can be made that even against USC, the superior talent the Trojans feature is cause for understanding why the stats look so bad.

Granted, if that’s true, there’s no reason a relatively young defense that’s being dealt trial by fire needs to sit back so often and watch everything unfold before it. It’s been too easy for opposing quarterbacks to carve up ASU’s defense while its defensive backs are allowing a free release to receivers on the outside or linebackers are caught out of position in coverage during a four- or five-man rush.

The scheme in place is as responsible for allowing screens along with short slant and hitch routes to so consistently go for big gains—it’s clear there’s poor tacklers on the perimeter and in space, therefore it’s not rocket science to assume leaving poor tacklers alone and in space against dynamic players is not wise.

It’s clear something needs to be changed schematically at this point, if it wasn’t already. Even with key players injured and out of the lineup, conceding 40 points a game isn’t going to cut it, even if the offense can manage to produce more than that every week. It felt as though the Sun Devils didn’t make the necessary adjustments to win, often setting the defense up for failure.

The Trojans almost exclusively targeted and ran to the open side of the field on Saturday, which was often away from defensive end JoJo Wicker and boundary corner Kareem Orr. Time and time again, the Sun Devils allowed plays to work towards that side without much resistance, on occasion overloading the near side of the field.

The necessary adjustments were made in the previous game, but it can’t take 30 minutes for changes to be implemented.

ASU’s 41-20 shellacking was really surprising. — Pass

Pass on this, because it wasn’t.

USC really is that much more talented than ASU, regardless of what its record indicated. The play-calling and the poor play, in tandem with the Trojans’ talent, resulted in the gap on the scoreboard.

After watching UTSA quarterback Dalton Sturm work ASU’s defense, seeing Sam Darnold—a quarterback of similar mold, with better talent around him—have success against the Sun Devils is no surprise.

None of the Todd Graham-coached Sun Devils to face the Trojans have been the more talented team. The equalizer for ASU has always been aggressive-but-opportunistic coaching. The coaching failed its players, and vice versa.

The Sun Devils are in hot water if they have to move on without Manny Wilkins. — Option

So, it wasn’t exactly difficult to see that ASU’s running game—which was already struggling—was rendered completely ineffective with Wilkins out of the lineup. The run/pass-option phase of the game was virtually taken away from ASU once the redshirt-sophomore quarterback went down. The running game, which includes the RPO, is something Graham has said needs to be a part of the offense’s identity. White isn’t a statue, but he’s not the confident runner Wilkins is.

However, there is a possibility that White ends up proving he’s a capable signal-caller, and Lindsey is able to adapt his offense around arguably the most talented quarterback recruit the program has ever landed.

That remains to be seen. White didn’t look all too comfortable against USC, but Lindsey has worked magic with less before as recently as last season.