Often times this season, the Arizona State Sun Devils have looked completely lost on offense.
The O-line has struggled, the run game hasn’t even had a chance to develop and even the extremely talented receiver core has at times looked shaky. These offensive woes have held the Devils back through their first couple contests, but there is a reason to believe their fortunes could soon change.
Arizona State travels to Lubbock, Texas this weekend to face the Texas Tech Red Raiders in a matchup that is sure to produce offensive firepower, if nothing else. TTU has a tremendous offense, but has often ranked near the bottom of not only the Big-12 Conference, but the entire nation.
Here are three ways the Sun Devils can get their offense back on track with a solid performance in Texas on Saturday:
1. Force the linebackers to make difficult decisions
When David Gibbs was hired in 2015 as the sixth defensive coordinator in the last eight years with the Red Raiders , he was tasked with one simple goal: improve one of the worst defensive units in the country. To achieve this, he implemented a fairly complicated scheme that is a mix of cover three and an extremely aggressive quarter look.
Mixing both a conservative zone defense with a blitzing attack requires a linebacking core with an ability to recognize plays and change on the fly. The Red Raiders have had two full seasons to adjust, but it doesn’t look like they fully understand how to intertwine both schemes effectively and change the play quickly yet.
Let’s take a look at this play from last year’s shootout between the Sun Devils and TTU. It’s a third and short, and instead of running the ball the Devils decide to line up four wide and send Ballage on a simple out route to give Wilkins an emergency option. Arizona State will send two deep routes on the far side of the field to clear out the corners and safeties and send Tim White on a simple hook route in the middle of the field.
The ASU plan is clear, but Tech’s is not. The Red Raiders decide to have two linebackers lined up all the way on the far side of the field to cover essentially nothing, leaving three Sun Devil wideouts in man-to-man coverage. When Wilkins looks for somewhere to throw, he finds White wide open after because of a great move and the fact that there are no linebackers in coverage (they’re on the wrong side of the field.)
2. Find the holes in the zone
We’ve already taken a look at what the Devils can do when Gibbs dials up a blitz, but here’s how ASU can tear apart the Red Raiders’ cover three. This is a terrific play call and perfect execution from the Wilkins and N’Keal Harry.
The first thing you notice on this play is that Arizona State sends every one of its receivers deep, not to take a shot deep and air it out, but to find a gap in the zone. On the far side of the field, Harry starts his route by sprinting straight down the sideline as if he were running a go route, but makes a tremendous cut back move and makes the catch in a ton of space.
Inside post routes, deep hooks like this one and slants are easy ways to tear apart a cover three, as after a few passes an offense can learn where the holes are in coverage. The only thing this requires is crisp route running and quick decisions from Wilkins, both of which we’ve seen so far this season - the offensive line just has to get more time for Wilkins to excel.
3. Get rid of the ball quickly
Wilkins’ ability to get the ball out of his hands into into those of one of his playmakers may be the most important aspect of the Sun Devils’ attack Saturday.
We didn’t see much improvement from the Devils offensive line from week one to week two, and although ASU has been experimenting a bit at practice, we shouldn’t expect much to change for week three. The only way to execute a sound offensive attack then is to get the play to develop quicker, while alleviating much of the pressure on O-line and pushing the ball outside.
We’ve seen the Devils run options and bubble screens before, but not as effectively as they did against TTU last year. On this play, the Red Raiders dial up a blitz and rush far too aggressively, not giving themselves time and space to adjust in case the play develops into a short pass - which it did. The offensive line has very little to do, the TTU blitz places defensive linemen at least 10 yards away from the ball-carrier and Demario Richard runs freely down the near side of the field.
The offensive issues for the Sun Devils at times seem catastrophic, but this weekend represents a huge opportunity for Wilkins and company to get their groove back on that side of the ball against a terrible defense.
They just have to follow these three steps.