A win is a win. And I’m not going to argue with that.
Arizona State beat a good football team in the Oregon State Beavers on Saturday night. I am reminded of the words of Stanford coach David Shaw earlier this year: “I’m not going to apologize for winning a football game.” The casual fan might look at the score of this game and figure it was just a solid win. Maybe so. And from the defensive side of the ball, I think fans can be somewhat content.
But I believe it is now time to be a little concerned about the ASU offense. All football teams go through peaks and valleys during a season. So, too, individual players and units have highs and lows. Right now, the Sun Devil offense is in a valley. As a passer, so is quarterback Taylor Kelly. This is not entirely Kelly’s fault. After all, he’s leading this team to wins. He is completing passes and racking up yardage. But for two weeks in a row, the offense has sputtered.
In my preview of the Arizona State-Oregon State matchup, I made a point that ASU needed to rediscover its vertical passing game. I don’t believe it achieved that goal. Some may say, “Who cares? We’re scoring TDs.” And that is true: scoring is all that matters. Indeed, the defense you are faced with dictates play-calling and reads by the QB. But at this level, and especially for a team in position to play for the Rose Bowl, being able to threaten big plays downfield is a must.
To their credit, Kelly and wide receiver Jaelen Strong resurrected the back-shoulder fade in the offensive game plan. That play had been missing for a couple of weeks. But they also misfired on about half of the routes. Other than that, the Sun Devils only completed one pass I would consider a downfield pass — a post route to WR Kevin Ozier in the fourth quarter. This won’t be good enough to beat future opponents.
This was also the second week in a row that the ASU offense had great success early and then was shut down for the next two quarters. It seems to me that the players and offensive staff have a good game plan to start the game. But when the opposing defense adjusts, the Devils can’t make their own adjustments quickly enough. This assessment might be a little too critical, but it is a legitimate one.
After the opening drive, Kelly made several poor throws, including one that was intercepted. Then, he made a bad decision that led to another pick. I also believe the offensive line took another step back in pass protection.
There are a couple of things that might be going on here. First, for whatever reason, Oregon State always plays ASU tough. No matter how good or bad either team is, the Beavers always have a good showing against the Sun Devils. I’ve seen it at the high school and college level. Some programs just seem to “have the number” of another team. This dynamic is hard to explain and quantify, but it exists.
The other dynamic going on is the bye-week situation. Oregon State was the third opponent in a row that was coming off of a bye-week to play ASU. This is a big advantage, and I’m hoping it is the reason the Sun Devils have been slow to adjust.
Typically, every team has one week to prepare for a game. That means the offense, defense and special teams, as well as individual units (O-line, WRs, DBs, etc.) has about three real workdays to implement a game plan. The coaches and players come up with game plan A and get to work on it. Then they put together game plan B and spend a few reps on it. That’s it — time to play. But teams with a bye-week are able to spend a whole lot of time on game plan A, as well as a good amount of time on game plan B and even a decent amount of time on game plan C.
This is no trivial thing, and yet Arizona State prevailed in all three of those games. For ASU fans, they’ll have to hope this disadvantage in preparation was the guiding force in the Sun Devils’ offensive struggles. But be advised, to beat UCLA next week, coach Todd Graham’s team cannot go scoreless in the second and third quarters trying to figure things out. And they surely cannot throw two first half interceptions.
The ASU defense is playing very well right now. However, they need to improve their ability to adjust as well. They let the OSU tight ends run wild and never figured it out. But they shut down the run game once again and limited a very potent passing attack by the Beavers.
Overall, Saturday’s game was a solid win for the Sun Devils. Now it’s time to move on. Good or bad, coaches and players need to move forward. But the offense has got to get back in rhythm in order to win in Pasadena next week.