ASU was hoping on Saturday night to join the upper echelon of college football. There is no question that Todd Graham’s offense is worthy of that level of respect. The defense has had its moments, led by All-American Will Sutton. But the top teams excel not only on both sides of the ball, but also on special teams. Just consider how special team play impacted the Auburn-Alabama classic over Thanksgiving weekend.
ASU’s Special Teams could be described many ways but for certain, “special” would not be part of the description. Let’s just review what happened during the first half of the Stanford game. On the opening kick-off, ASU elected the equivalent of a pooch kick, likely to prevent a big play by Stanford’s Ty Montgomery, one of the premier kick-off returners in the nation. Result? Stanford had the ball just the other side of midfield. Their offense went on to score a touchdown. After ASU scored, they elected to kick deep, risking a big return by Montgomery. Result? Stanford started their next touchdown drive at just the other side of midfield, following a good return. After Stanford’s second touchdown, ASU had a decent kickoff return but was sent back to inside their own 20 because of a holding penalty. ASU’s offense then stalled, leaving it to Alex Garoutte to provide the defense with some help. Result? A net punt of under 15 yards and field position for Stanford inside the Devils’ 40 yard line. Stanford scored again.
Trailing 28-7, ASU’s defense stopped Stanford deep in their own territory when Davon Coleman sacked Kevin Hogan on third and long. This was the first defensive stop after Stanford scored four touchdowns in its first four possessions. Stanford punted, assuring ASU good field position. Result? Despite catching the punt at ASU’s 36 and no Stanford defenders in close proximity, Robert Nelson slipped at his own 42 yard line. Taylor Kelly couldn’t move the team, so following a third consecutive three and out, Garoutte and company took the field. It was reasonable to expect that Stanford would be pinned deep in their own territory. Result? You guessed it. Another lousy punt and after a net of just over 20 yards, Stanford started their sixth drive from their 30, rather than with their backs close to their own end zone.
I could go on, but I think the point has been made. Over the course of this otherwise memorable season, ASU has the lowest net punting average (just over 31 yards per punt) in the PAC-12. You can’t compete with numbers like that.
Todd Graham summed it all up in one quote after the game Saturday night.
“Just being honest with you, it’s been the most frustrating thing I’ve ever dealt with in coaching,” Graham said of his special teams. “To work so hard and be so good on offense and defense, to play like that in games we’ve played, it’s been so frustrating.”
I am not intending to be critical of Garoutte, who is a field goal kicker and not a punter. He took over punting duties after heavily recruited freshman punter Matt Haack failed to produce. Also, freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez has had a great year, earning the name Mr. Automatic, despite missing a 31 yard chip shot against Stanford.
Special Teams must be given similar attention to the work done to develop the offense and defense. They are no longer where you deposit players not capable of securing starting positions. The present and future of Sun Devil Football is looking good, but for the program to be really special, they better get working on their special teams.