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ASU Football: State of the program at the season’s halfway point

2-4 was predictable to some, disappointing to others

Washington v Arizona State Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Only a handful of teams in the country are experiencing as chaotic of a year as Arizona State (2-4, 1-2 Pac-12) is right now. Yet somehow, a bowl game, or six total wins, seems attainable amid the chaos.

An embarrassing home loss to Eastern Michigan, Herm Edwards’s departure and an upset-win over then-ranked Washington headlined the first half. But how did they get there, and how do the Sun Devils stack up on paper compared to the rest of the Pac-12 and the FBS?

Offense: among the bottom-feeders

Sandwiched between two 40-plus point performances (NAU, Washington) were four losses to Oklahoma State, Eastern Michigan, Utah and USC in which ASU averaged 19 points, which would be good for 117th in the nation right now.

“I went back and looked at both sides. Like you said, on the offensive side aggressively, I want to make sure we keep that going, you know, the tempo of that, be more aggressive if we can,” interim head coach Shaun Aguano said. “The coordinators are hearing it from me every single day that the style of play that I want to play but also making sure that they’re comfortable with the play-calls and that sort. But they’re hearing it from me. I want to be aggressive and take the game to our opponent.”

Emory Jones was cleared from concussion protocol over the bye week and will remain the starting quarterback, according to Aguano. Jones is 7th in the Pac-12 in completion percentage (63.6), and 9th in the conference in yards per-attempt (7.4), both stats accounting for quarterbacks with a minimum of 14 attempts per game.

“I’ve never been a fan of splitting quarterbacks just because the rhythm that somebody goes in,” Aguano said. “Now, if somebody is not getting the job done, I’m here to win football games too. And so, if somebody is not getting the job done, I can make those decisions really quick, but I don’t feel that splitting reps or splitting series (works). Just the continuity of the game doesn’t bode well in my experience. Whoever’s going to give me the best chance to win the football game and our team to win a football game, that’s who I’m going to go with.”

When a quarterback struggles, fans are quick to call out his “help” in terms of pass protection, talent at the skill positions, strength of the run-game etc. If Jones has struggled, consider his “help” to be painfully average.

ASU’s offensive line allowed 14 sacks in six games, good for sixth-best in the conference. On the ground, they rush for the sixth-best rate at 4.3 yards per-carry. X Valladay (5.9 yards per-carry) and Daniyel Ngata (6.4 yards per-carry) simply do not see the ball enough because of early deficits. Elijah Badger, the leading Sun Devil receiver, has the 17th-most yards in the conference with 372.

Lastly, the tight ends, went silent to open the year....


Jalin Conyers (8 receptions, 76 yards) and Messiah Swinson (7 receptions, 89 yards, 1 touchdown) were touted in the preseason as potential game-breakers offensively, but neither have had any significant impact on the offense. The bulk of their stats, including Swinson’s touchdown, came in garbage-time situations.

In terms of total offense (353.3 yards per-game) only Colorado is worse in the Pac-12. There is oodles of room to improve, but it just so happens that ASU’s next two matchups, at Stanford and at Colorado, are against the conferences 10th and 12th best total-defenses in the Pac-12.

If there is a time to get right, it is now.

Defense: not much better

The three levels of the ASU defense each received a label preseason: the linemen were the deepest, the linebackers were the strongest and the defensive backs had the most to prove.

So far, only one-third of those assumptions were on the right track. Linebackers Kyle Soelle and Merlin Robertson lead the conference’s 9th-best group in total defense.

Robertson (43) and Soelle (73), both captains, lead the team in tackles. Soelle’s 33 solo tackles is tied for 13th-best in the FBS. Robertson excels between the hashes in coverage and run-support. Not much gets behind him.

Their high tackle-counts are impressive, but they are also largely clean-up work for a struggling and injury-ridden defensive line. ASU lost returning-starter Michael Matus to a torn ACL during fall camp. Since games have started, tackles Omar Norman-Lott and Gharin Stansbury, and ends Anthonie Cooper and Dylan Hall have all missed time due to injury.

They were always considered the deepest, but after all, depth is depth for a reason.

“After looking at us, like you said, self-scouting, we do see that there’s part of the game that we have to increase, no doubt about that, and some of that is pressure, let’s be honest,” defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson said. “You know, we have to bring a little bit more pressure than we have. But at the same time, we’re not going to go overboard trying to be somebody that we’re not. You know, it’s just not me at this particular time. So after we looked at where we’ve been, we have made some adjustments for sure.”

The Sun Devils are last in the conference with 4 sacks-forced. Two of those sacks (Robertson, safety Khoury Bethley) don’t even play on the defensive line. Sacks might not always be the most accurate representation of pressure, but they surely come as a result of it.

Basically, if the secondary produces tight coverage, the front-four should be able to bring it home at least some of the time.

And the secondary has largely impressed, especially after receiving so much preseason doubt. There were some broken plays in the Utah and USC games, but for every hiccup, there has been a response (see Timarcus Davis interception at USC). The run support has also been strong.

All four starters in the defensive backfield from last season clocked out of the program, so it was up to a mix of role players (Davis, Ed Woods, Jordan Clark, D.J. Taylor, Isaiah Johnson) and transfers (Ro Torrence, Khoury Bethley, Chris Edmonds) to fill in the gaps.

So far, 14 defensive backs have made tackles on defense, with a few on special teams, for ASU this season. House of Sparky predicted preseason that Henderson could trot out as many as 15 throughout the season. There is still time.

Henderson’s defense allows the 3rd-most points per-game in the conference at 30.3. Without a drastic improvement, it will be hard for ASU to win four of its last six games.

Special teams: a hidden gem

During the ASU-Washington game, but before the Sun Devils were in control, I tweeted that freshman kicker Carter Brown might be the first-half MVP for ASU this year. That still might be the case.

Brown is 18-for-18 on extra points, and 9-for-10 on field goal attempts this season, with his lone miss coming in wet conditions at Oklahoma State. He is responsible for 45 points, and nailed his career-long of 53 yards against Washington.

The Sun Devils have a real threat with Brown.

In the return game, the trio of Taylor, Ngata and Javen Jacobs lead the Pac-12 with an average kick return of 26 yards. Punter Eddie Czaplicki’s 40.8 net-yards per-punt is the second-best in the conference.

Special teams coach Shawn Slocum has his units working like well-oiled machines.

Other notes before Stanford:

  • Captain and veteran left guard LaDarius Henderson is doubtful for Saturday’s game at Stanford. Henderson sustained a finger injury in the win vs Washington. He will be evaluated Monday, with a final decision coming later on in the week. There are no other major injury designations.
  • Trenton Bourguet, like usual, will earn some first-team reps in practice this week, but Emory Jones will start. We reiterate this because Twitter may go into a frenzy with the live practice reports.
  • Quarterback Tanner McKee, tight end Benjamin Yurosek and receiver Elijah Higgins all return for the Cardinal after combining for 228 yards and a touchdown through the air in Tempe last year.