After an auspicious 2-0 start for Arizona State, the Sun Devils have fallen in a rut. They have dropped three of their last four games – all by just seven points on the road. The previously ranked squad has hit their bye week in a tricky 3-3 situation.
The Sun Devil defense was the best in the nation for two weeks before their first misstep at San Diego State. Starting that week, they have allowed 28, 24, 27 and 28 points, but it isn’t exclusively their fault. In that span, ASU has only averaged about 27 minutes of possession per game as the offensive efficiency has also taken a step back. Still, first-year coordinator Danny Gonzales’ unit has had its share of mishaps.
A major positive has been the younger playmakers on that side of the ball. Freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson has arguably been the best player on defense so far. His team-high three sacks are tied for eighth-best in the conference, and he leads ASU in quarterback hurries. Aashari Crosswell (leads team in pass breakups), Darien Butler (4.5 tackles for loss) and Kyle Soelle (two sacks and two forced fumbles) have been other underclassmen standouts.
A major negative this year was exactly what plagued ASU in 2017: stopping the run. After they allowed under 70 yards through their first two games, ASU now sits at 83rd (out of 130 teams) in the country in rush yards allowed and 68th in yards allowed per game.
Up next for the Sun Devils is Stanford’s Bryce Love, if he can get healthy. The reigning Heisman runner-up has been banged up this season, most recently with an ankle injury, but if he plays he would be a big challenge for ASU.
On offense, the big issue for Arizona State has been a lack of balance.
In their first loss, quarterback Manny Wilkins threw the ball 46 times while ASU ran just 24 times, including seven rushes from Wilkins. Those 24 rushes manifested into just 36 yards in that contest. Meanwhile Wilkins struggled for most of the game until the comeback bid late, when the Sun Devils came up just short to the SDSU.
In their second loss to Washington, ASU ran the ball well in the first half with sophomore Eno Benjamin leading the way. After halftime, the Devils seemingly abandoned the run and let Washington’s stellar pass coverage shut them down. Wilkins couldn’t make enough plays to win and they lost again by just a touchdown.
Against Colorado, ASU failed to put drives together, especially in the second half. The Sun Devils only managed 18 first downs through the game and were dominated in time of possession. ASU held the lead three separate times, but couldn’t stop WR Laviska Shenault Jr from scoring four touchdowns.
When the offense commits to the run, they move the ball quite well. Benjamin averages 5.7 yards per carry with seven scores, despite being virtually invisible during weeks two and three. Wilkins is having an adequate senior campaign, but he hasn’t made a leap of improvement like he did between 2016 and last season. Ultimately, a high-tempo run heavy offense is what seems to be the most effective for ASU, and with receivers like probable first round pick N’Keal Harry and senior Kyle Williams, the play action game could be very effective.
Arizona State currently sits in fifth place in the Pac-12 South with a 1-2 conference record. With a strong second half, they have a chance to shoot up in the standings with no team truly running away with the South.
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