Story by Justin Toscano
As Arizona State (2-3) progresses through the bye week, it has questions to answer and holes to plug. A gauntlet stretch of conference play awaits the Sun Devils after this week, beginning with No. 6 Washington on Oct. 14.
And because the bye week falls at about the mid-season point, it’s time to recap what’s happened up until now.
-Manny Wilkins is completing about 65 percent of his passes and has only thrown two interceptions, both coming in the last game. Wilkins has exceeded expectations this year. He’s taken care of the ball, been more calculated with using his feet and has stepped up in his leadership role.
-The offense, full of weapons, is finally hitting its stride. Two senior running backs in Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard and a star sophomore receiver in N’Keal Harry are leading the skill players. However, ASU has received large boosts from emerging receiver Kyle Williams and Jalen Harvey, the ever-reliable possession receiver. It looks like this group has the potential to score 35-40 points per game if it performs up to its capability.
-The defense hasn’t been all bad. The front seven has looked good at times, especially the defensive line. That group took a step back last season, but it seems Michael Slater has helped them progress this year. The defensive linemen have been key in helping ASU have some type of resolve on defense.
-While the offense is talented and has potential, the closest it came to a complete performance was in the win over Oregon. It cannot start slow or end slow, or have a drought in between in the Pac-12. ASU doesn’t have the most stout defense, so the offense needs to score consistently. That said, there have been cases where the defense has held up and the offense hasn’t come through.
-The defense lost linebacker Koron Crump — perhaps its most talented player — for the year due to injury. It will need to plug that hole. Also, cornerback Joey Bryant suffered a season-ending injury as well, an unfortunate bump in his feel-good story. ASU’s defense needed all the help it could get this season, and losing two players to injury doesn’t aid the cause.
-With exception to freshman kicker Brandon Ruiz, ASU’s special teams haven’t been good this season. Punter Michael Sleep-Dalton hasn’t yet lived up to expectations, and ASU has made special teams miscues before the half in every one of its games. This is an important facet of the game that it will certainly need to clean up.
Where does my prediction stand?
I predicted this team would win six games. Right now, it sits at 2-3 with a difficult Pac-12 schedule ahead. If the Sun Devils want to win six games and avoid missing a bowl game for the second consecutive year, they’ll need to steal one of the next three games (vs. Washington, @ Utah, vs. USC) to get a third win. Then, they’ll need to see if they can beat either Colorado or UCLA for their fourth win. Finally, I see Oregon State and Arizona as beatable opponents because ASU has talent on its roster. If it wins both, it’ll have won six games.
Where ASU needs the most improvement
I think the Sun Devils need to limit big plays. They have given up so many partially because the tackling hasn’t been good. If they can improve those areas, the defense should keep the team in the game.
Interesting Stats and Trends
-Remember the conversation about whether or not ASU would improve its defense? Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett always said it would be a “journey,” and it has been. The Sun Devils are 118th in the country in total defense out of 129 teams.
-I’m not just saying Manny Wilkins has been good. He’s proven it. He’s ninth in the country in passing yards and 30th in passing efficiency, which is a reasonable mark. He set a school record for passing attempts without an interception, but it was broken against Stanford. He’ll need to have a productive second half of the season.
-ASU has gotten good pressure on the quarterback. The Sun Devils have 15 sacks this season, six less than first-ranked SMU.
-The Sun Devils have played three standout running backs this season. They failed the test against SDSU’s Rashaad Penny and Stanford’s Bryce Love, but contained Oregon’s Royce Freeman. Still, they’re ranked 96th in the country in rush defense as they’ve given up 953 rushing yards this season.
-Wide receiver Jalen Harvey has 17 receptions this season, and 16 have been for first downs. In his career, 35 of 42 receptions have gone for first downs. He’s become a security blanket for Wilkins, especially on third down.
What ASU will need to do to turn things around
The defense needs to be better. Plain and simple. The ASU offense seems like it’s progressing more each week, but the defense needs to help it out. The defense played well for most of the game against Oregon, though it still allowed 35 points. If it can get more takeaways and stop teams more consistently, the team will be in much better position because the offense is loaded with talent.
Additionally, the rest of the season will hinge on whether ASU can put together complete performances. No slow starts or droughts. How consistently can the offense score? Will they take care of the ball? On defense, how many big plays will be allowed? Will there be missed tackles?
Those are all questions that need to be answered during the bye week. ASU has not played well this season, but it seems there is more talent on this team — especially on the offense — than the record suggests. It will just take a more cohesive effort each week.