Arizona State began the season talking about the College Football Playoff. Coach Todd Graham insisted this was the best team he had coached in his fourth season in Tempe, so he wasn’t going to shy away from national championship talk.
The big plans came crashing down with a 38-17 loss to Texas A&M in the season opener in Houston, followed three weeks later by a humbling 42-14 loss at Sun Devil Stadium to USC.
As it heads into a critical matchup with No. 4 Utah on Saturday in Salt Lake City at 4-2, ASU has righted the ship a bit with wins in its last two games. Since the Sun Devils have also reached the midpoint of the season, it’s time for the midseason report.
We’ve never been one for traditional grades so instead we’ll focus on the notable achievements and shortcomings of the first half.
MVP: LB Salamo Fiso
Fiso leads the nation in solo tackles (45) and is ninth nationally in tackles for loss (10.5). Fiso is not a vocal leader and admits that is something with which he simply isn’t comfortable, but defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said he is a unique vocal leader.
“His way of communicating is getting people lined up, getting people into the right adjustments and the right call,” Patterson said. “I’d rather have a guy that is going to set there and lead by his actions and do things on the field; let his play speak for itself.”
Fiso has done that, thrusting himself into the picture for the Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: The receiving corps
This was a major question coming into the season after the loss of Jaelen Strong to the NFL a year early, and the loss of deep threat Cam Smith to a season-ending knee injury. ASU does not have a receiver anywhere the Pac-12’s top dozen in receiving yards per game.
You can partially blame the offensive tackles and quarterback Mike Bercovici for some early-season struggles, but the Sun Devils receivers are a mediocre group that fails to get separation too often and still lacks a consistent deep threat, although Tim White may be emerging in that role.
What is perhaps most perplexing is that recruiting efforts failed to shore up this group when everyone knew Strong would leave the program early for the NFL. ASU somehow missed on several recruiting targets despite an attractive offense that was among the nation’s leaders in points scored the last few seasons.
BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT: QB Mike Bercovici
Bercovici looked tentative, even lost early in the season when the Sun Devils were struggling to find their offensive identity. When he started pulling the ball and running in the zone-read option, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s offense began to gel. Bercovici is not as fleet-footed as his predecessor, Taylor Kelly, but his running must remain a threat in this offense (particularly due to its shortcomings) if the Devils are to keep improving.
Bercovici’s touchdown to interceptions ratio is good at 14:4. On the other hand, he is just sixth in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency, largely due to a pedestrian 60.3 percent completion percentage. If White can’t emerge as a consistent deep threat, the Devils will need that percentage to rise. They will have to be a more of a ball control offense if they can’t get big plays from their receivers.
BIGGEST CONCERN: Passing defense
The Devils have been pretty good against the run recently after a pair of non-conference games against triple option teams skewed their numbers. The Devils have held all six opponents below their season average in rushing yards. However, the passing defense has started to slip, giving up big plays of 42, 67 and 68 yards against Colorado.
The graduation of Damarious Randall was a major blow to the defense and lately, feel-good story Jordan Simone has looked slow at safety. With some better passing offenses ahead than Colorado’s, this is an area to watch.
The safe bet says Arizona State won’t win the Pac-12 South unless it defeats unbeaten Utah on Saturday in Salt Lake City. A two-game deficit with five gams to play would really be a three-game deficit because the Utes would win a tiebreaker.
The smart money also says the Sun Devils are not a complete team so they will likely drop a couple more games and end the season a respectable 8-4. That said, the Pac-12 hasn’t gone by the book this season. Parity is real. Todd Graham’s teams have caught fire before.
It would be unwise to write them off just yet.