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ASU Football: Sun Devils’ offensive identity crisis reaches peak in loss to Washington

Chip Lindsey and the Sun Devils’ offense seemed to be completely out of answers Saturday night

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it was the injuries, lack of talent or ineffective play-calling, the Maroon and Gold seemed completely hopeless offensively against the seventh-ranked Huskies in Seattle.

When the game mercifully ended Saturday night, the Sun Devils had only mustered 245 yards of total offense, the majority of which came in the fourth quarter. To be fair to offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, however, he completely exhausted ASU’s playbook.

Coming into the season, the Sun Devils knew that their offensive success would hinge on their capability to run the ball effectively. This has worked to a certain extent, with both Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage combining for 1,048 yards in the Sun Devils’ first 11 games. However, the Sun Devils were completely unable to establish anything on the ground against the Huskies, a sight ASU fans have become accustomed to during their six-game skid.

Lindsey split Richard and Ballage’s carries neally in half, but the two combined for only 34 total yards. The offensive line struggled to create any lanes, and even when either back found them, they failed to make the most of it.

Washington linebackers Azeem Victor and Keisham Bierria proved to be far too much for the Devils to handle and it was ASU’s run game that paid the price. Lindsey also tried his hand with the Sparky formation in the red zone, but Ballage barely even graced the line of scrimmage when the took the snaps.

The Devils knew they had to run the ball to stay competitive in this game, and when that failed they were forced into passing on long second and third downs. Before freshman receiver N’Keal Harry’s two long receptions in the fourth quarter, the Sun Devils had managed only 163 yards through the air, but this was due in part to seemingly conservative play-calling. Lindsey, as he has often this season, relied on countless screen passes to the flats and slant routes over the middle.

This strategy puts an extreme emphasis on skill players such as Tim White, Ballage or Harry, who are forced to make plays on defenders once they receive the ball in the middle of the field. The problem on Saturday night, however, was that the Sun Devils were completely outmatched in the between the hashes by Washington linebackers Keishawn Bierria and Azeem Victor, who continually wrapped ASU playmakers up before they even stepped foot in the secondary.

After an extremely disappointing second half of the season, the Sun Devils are left with one week to find answers to these baffling questions on offense:

Who is to blame for the Sun Devils’ struggle on offense?

This question is a bit tricky, as the answer seems to be a combination of a lot of things. The Sun Devils have been decimated by injuries this year, and that surely doesn’t help any offense establish a rhythm.

Beyond the injuries, however, ASU has failed to establish a dominant run game, forcing an option-focused quarterback like Manny Wilkins to air the ball out more than Lindsey would like. Ideally Lindsey’s offense runs through the run-pass option, a scheme that allows the Sun Devils to mix their running game seamlessly into their short passing attack. But when the line doesn’t protect it’s quarterback and the run game can’t get anything going, ASU is forced to spread its wideouts and force it into weapons that just aren’t there.

What is working for ASU?

The Sun Devils’ offense currently lies in the hands of its’ two best players, White and Harry. When given the ball and an adequate amount of space in the middle of the field, White may be one of the hardest players to tackle in the Pac-12. Not only is he extremely fast, he’s proven to be hard to bring down. Even at 5 feet 11, 185 pounds, White is constantly carrying tacklers across the first-down line for extra yards. Harry, on the other hand may have the greatest size and hands this program has seen since Jaelen Harvey, as was evidenced by his six-catch, 114-yard performance against a very good Washington secondary.

The Sun Devils have just a week to figure out how to adjust their ailing offensive unit before a pivotal matchup with Arizona in the Territorial Cup.

Chip Lindsey and company have some major soul-searching to do when it comes to calling and executing plays next weekend, as bowl eligibility will be on the line Saturday night in Tuscon.