Last season under UCLA’s Noel Mazzone, the Arizona State Sun Devils looked like an offensive juggernaut at times, as they began the season with a 6-2 record and looked to salvage Dennis Erickson’s tenure in Tempe. Then the second half of the season sent ASU into a perennial tailspin and they ended up with a 6-7 record after losing the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl to Boise State.
This year, under first-year head coach Todd Graham, no one knew what to expect with ASU. Quarterback Brock Osweiler declared for the NFL Draft early and although running back Cameron Marshall returned after a 1,000-yard season, there weren’t any telling signs about their viability in the Pac-12 South.
The result has been a surprising offensive year by a variety of young players and a bright future for ASU, headlined by quarterback Taylor Kelly. The dual-threat sophomore is the most mobile signal caller in Tempe since Jake Plummer and he’s been able to put up solid numbers and get into the statistical upper echelon of Pac-12 quarterbacks.
Kelly is third in the conference in passing efficiency behind Marcus Mariota and Matt Barkley, and is second in the conference in touchdowns to interceptions ratio, with a 20 to 6 mark. What sets Kelly apart from a passer like Barkley however, is his mobility as he’s tied with Cameron Marshall for second on the team in rushing with 387.
With 187.7 yards per game on the on the ground, ASU is averaging their third highest total since 1988, and the Sun Devils’ rushing game has had an interesting balance. Freshman D.J. Foster gives ASU a jitterbug in the backfield to use both in the flat on screens and with carries off the edge. Foster, a Tempe native who chose ASU over USC in February, leads the team in rushing with 856 all-purpose yards while averaging 8.3 yards per play.
Despite not getting time on special teams, he’s become the poor man’s De’Anthony Thomas, only with more of a presence in both the running and passing game. ASU will split Foster out wide and put him in the backfield, as he’s explosive at both positions, giving the Sun Devils a versatile playmaking threat that they haven’t had in some time.
As for Marshall who entered the season in the upper tier of Pac-12 running backs, injuries set him back in fall camp, and he’s yet to turn the corner, averaging a smidgen under four yards per carry, while failing to cross the 100-yard mark in nine games.
When it comes to receiving, just like every other school in the Pac, ASU has a tight end fetish, with junior Chris Coyle leading the Sun Devils in both catches and yards. Coyle was College Football Performance Awards Football Bowl Subdivision Tight End Performer of the Week after a Week 2 victory over Illinois, and he currently sits second in the nation in tight end receptions per game, while being sixth on ASU’s single-season tight end reception list. That’s a big honor given the long line of NFL caliber tight ends to come out of Tempe, including Todd Heap and Zach Miller.
In offense coordinator’s Mike Norvell’s system, the passing game is predicated on short routes and auxiliary receivers, utilizing Foster and Coyle both in their natural positions and when lined up split wide or in the slot.
Kelly doesn’t have the strongest arm and it’s decision making that makes him a solid passer, so the close-to-the-vest aerial attack really suits him and the playmakers that the Sun Devils have, namely Foster.
When ASU comes into the Coliseum, they’ll bring with them the fourth highest scoring offense in conference play, but if they’re going to have success against the Trojans’, they’ll need to have improve in two areas in which they struggle: third down conversions and red zone offense.
ASU is fourth in the conference on third downs, but don’t let that fool you, as their 39.42 percentage is just ahead of Texas-San Antonio for 70th in the nation. In the red zone, the Sun Devils are 92nd in the nation, scoring 76 percent of the time.
Considering how good USC was at red zone defense in their first seven games and how quickly the Trojans’ offense has progressed in the second half, ASU cannot afford to leave points on the field if they want to win on Saturday.
As for ASU’s offensive line, despite having consistency in personnel –only six players have started on the line this season– the Sun Devils are 105th in the nation in sacks allowed, which could be just what the doctor ordered for USC’s defensive line who’ve struggled in each of the last two weeks.
If Arizona State can press the Trojans in areas where they struggled with Arizona and Oregon, they can put up points and move the ball. If they sit back and let the Trojans dictate, the matchups have to favor the Trojans, given ASU’s similarities on offense to Cal and Washington, two teams USC beat defensively.
Arizona State’s Projected Starters
XWR Rashad Ross #15
YWR Kevin Ozier #82
ZWR Jamal Miles #32
LT Evan Finkenberg #62
LG Jamil Douglass #74
C Kody Koebensky #67
RG Andrew Sampson #72
RT Brice Schwab #71
TE Darwin Rogers #17
H Chris Coyle #87
QB Taylor Kelly #10
TB Cameron Marshall #6
RB D.J. Foster #8