UCLA responded to losing three defensive starters in a big way last weekend, rolling out to a 56-30 win at then-No. 16 Arizona. Can the No. 7 Bruins keep it going against an Arizona State team that might be the most disappointing in the conference? Doug Haller, who is covering his sixth season of ASU football for the Arizona Republic and azcentral.com, answered five questions about the Sun Devils.
1. During Arizona State’s 42-14 loss to USC last Saturday, you called this the worst half of football you’d seen out of the Sun Devils in your time covering them. What set this apart from their performances in other blowout losses?
Mostly, the overall sloppiness. They fumbled twice in USC territory — once at the 1-yard line. That one was picked up and returned for a touchdown. Then on the ensuing kick-off, ASU’s returner made a poor decision to bring the ball out of the end zone and fumbled. So that gave USC 14 points in about 30 seconds. Contributing: The defense tackled as poorly as it has all season and couldn’t get off the field on third down. It was ugly.
2. Mike Bercovici’s numbers haven’t slipped that far overall compared to last season, but against Texas A&M and the Trojans, he’s only completed 56.5 percent of his passes for 471 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. Was he playing over his head during his three-game tear in 2014, or was that stretch closer to his true abilities?
When I think back to his performance last season, I always wonder: Had that last-season Hail Mary fallen incomplete, giving Bercovici one win in three starts, how would that have changed the offseason excitement? It’s a hard question to answer. Either way, here’s what’s changed: Last year, ASU had a solid offensive line. This season it has two first-time starters at tackle. Last year, the Sun Devils had Jaelen Strong, who could catch anything within his area code. This year, they don’t. At the same time, Bercovici has missed throws he usually makes. No question, he’s underperformed.
3. D.J. Foster is only the fourth NCAA player to ever hit 2,000 rushing and receiving yards in his career, but his production has dropped dramatically, with just seven touches against USC. Why hasn’t the coaching staff featured him as much?
Defenses last year had to focus on Strong, so that often left a linebacker on Foster in the slot. That’s a mismatch. This season Foster is drawing all the attention and it’s slowed his production. At the same time, ASU has not a great job of getting him involved in other ways. At times, you have to look just to make sure he’s still on the field. I’m guessing that changes this week.
4. ASU was top-25 nationally in forced turnovers in each of the past three seasons, but is now No. 58 with four interceptions and two recovered fumbles. Is this fixable moving forward, or did the defense just lose too much talent?
No, they started off slow in this area last season and then turned it up as the season unfolded. I expect them to rebound in a similar manner. The key is the pass rush. For the most part, ASU hasn’t gotten to the quarterback as much as it would like.
5. Todd Graham had billed this as his best ASU team yet, which hasn’t proved to be the case. After two losses already, what are reasonable expectations for the Sun Devils the rest of the way?
In two games, they have scored just four touchdowns against Power 5 schools, and one was gift-wrapped as a result of a turnover. Their strength is running the ball. However, they have yet to sustain drives, mostly because of ball-security issues. Fix that, and they could become a factor in the South. If not, they could struggle to make a bowl game.