5-1 was a long time ago.
After putting itself in early position to compete for the Pac-12 South crown, the Arizona State Sun Devils have come crashing back down to Earth in a matter of three weeks. The team suffered its third consecutive loss in frustrating fashion, watching as Oregon true freshman Justin Herbert carved apart its defense en route to a 54-35 loss that snapped the Ducks’ own five-game losing streak.
As the Sun Devils try to pick themselves up off the mat in a long-overdue bye week, what can we take from a long day in Eugene? As always, let us know your takeaways in the comments.
1. DSC’s the answer: Okay okay, that’s quite the anointment. He wasn’t that great. But if you haven’t seen the progression in Dillon Sterling-Cole’s play from his first extended game action last week against Washington State (and especially since his debut cameo against UCLA), then you haven’t been watching. The true freshman’s first career touchdown came on a perfectly-placed ball to N’Keal Harry’s back-shoulder that the receiver plucked out of the air, and Sterling-Cole showed beautiful touch on a fourth down attempt down the sideline to Jalen Harvey that Harvey couldn’t corral before touching out of bounds.
You can’t ignore his three interceptions, but on a day in which his defense wasn’t doing anything to help him, Sterling-Cole’s play was the only thing that even kept Arizona State in the game at all. As his pocket presence improves and comfort running the offense grows, we’re going to see Sterling-Cole continue to take steps of tangible progression. With this season already in the tubes, what we can have out of DSC as a sophomore next year will be exponentially-improved if he’s given the keys for the remainder of this campaign.
2. Heads are going to roll on defense: Look, Todd Graham isn’t on the ‘hot seat’. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not in a couple weeks after Utah comes to town and hands him a fourth straight loss.
It’s not happening.
A Territorial Cup loss? We’ll talk again then.
But for now, Graham has turned this program into his own, too much for this injury-riddled season to be the one that convinces administration he’s not the right man to take Arizona State to the promised land. The same can’t be said however for his defensive assistants, because something has to be done to address how terrible the defensive efforts have been this season.
It’s one thing to allow Luke Falk and Davis Webb - heck, even Sam Darnold’s played pretty well this season - to tear up your secondary, especially with their injury issues with the group. But Justin Herbert’s been less-than-spectacular this year to say the least, and ASU made him look like Dan Fouts out there, completing 31 of his 42 passes for an eye-popping 489 yards and four scores. Many of those yards came after the catch, as the Sun Devils couldn’t form tackle to save their lives.
Oregon wasn’t even that efficient on third down, mostly because they didn’t need to be. Three times after ASU forced an Oregon fourth down, three times the Ducks went for it and converted the first down yardage.
At a certain point there needs to be a message sent that this type of performance is simply unacceptable. I can’t send that message by writing that it needs to be sent. A head coach who made his coaching name on defense shouldn’t be coaching the 125th-ranked defense out of 128 FBS teams. It’s time for Graham to take some accountability for his coaching staff before it’s his job that’s in danger.
3. It’s time to make N’Keal Harry a focal point: Among the few bright spots from this season has been the actualization of N’Keal Harry’s five-star talent. His touchdown snag to bring Arizona State within a sniff of the Ducks on Saturday was another example of him just being a better athlete than the player he’s matched up against.
That’s often the case with Harry, and that’s why the offense’s self-limitation with his usage is that much more baffling. In the non-conference season the Sun Devils made consistent efforts to get Harry the ball in space, throwing it to him in the flat and taking advantage of numbers or creating opportunities for him on screen plays. As the season has dragged on he’s been relegated back to just being a downfield threat, and as much of a dominant threat he is as a vertical threat ASU needs to make getting him the ball a priority rather than a matter of circumstance.
4. Sparky Evolves - Finally: I don’t think anybody thought after last week that we were done seeing the Sparky package getting ample use - even after it was shut down in the red zone by Washington State. But there was a sense that if ASU just stuck to the same Sparky formula - lining Kalen Ballage up for a direct snap and then just letting him follow blocks - Oregon would prepare for that.
The Maroon and Gold still ran the ball from the Sparky package - with Ballage scoring a touchdown on a counter as Jay Jay Wilson and Kody Kohl laid down blocks - but Ballage was actually called upon twice to use his arm, both times completing passes to wide open receivers. It was a new ingredient to the Sparky recipe that we’ve seen this season, and knowing Chip Lindsey’s gutsy enough to let Ballage throw the ball makes the formation a genuine pick-your-poison attack. We’re not seeing this go away anytime soon.
5. When are the tight ends going to be used as tight ends? The two players that blocked for Ballage on his touchdown run from the Sparky formation - WIlson and Kohl - are tight ends. Yet we’re only seeing them worked into the game as lead blockers. Sure - they’re plenty capable. But they’re also plenty capable of contributing to the offense as receiving threats.
Arizona State’s continued lack of involvement for either of their tight ends is baffling. Wilson was a four-star recruit out of high school as a vertical threat at tight end and Kohl was a key cog in the passing offense when Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici had the reins to the offense. Those quarterbacks weren’t true freshmen just working themselves into the college game like Dillon Sterling-Cole is. If he had Kohl and Wilson as insurance policies in the passing game it’d allow for a lot more leeway as he improves with his accuracy.