Written by Justin Toscano
Only time will tell if Arizona State’s upset of then-No. 5 Washington is a true turning point, but it nonetheless seems like a great start.
The Sun Devils still need to improve in certain areas, and continue to perform well in others. Here are five things they can do to continue turning around their season.
BETTER PLAY IN THE SECONDARY
Veteran defensive coordinator Phil Bennett inherited a young secondary. In fact, that may be an understatement. None of the four starters there had ever started a game. The Sun Devils started a former junior-college corner and a former walk-on. Expecting this group to be spectacular out of the gate was probably an unrealistic opinion.
However, consistent improvement is key. Is the group there yet? No. But the growth is there. There were a few times where Washington quarterback Jake Browning was running around a ton because ASU’s secondary had blanketed the Huskies’ receivers. ASU’s secondary is getting there. It’ll need to keep improving for the Sun Devils to continue their turnaround.
Manny Wilkins in 2016 and Manny Wilkins in 2017 are two different quarterbacks. This year’s Manny Wilkins seems more confident in himself. He often relied on his legs last year, and while he still uses them, he’s trusted his arm more this season and it’s really helped out the Sun Devils.
He’s distributed the ball to each weapon on the term, helping foster growth within the offense. Take sophomore receiver Kyle Williams, for example. The coaches have always seemingly been high on Williams, but Wilkins’ leadership and ability to get the ball in his receivers’ hands has helped give him ample opportunity to show what he can do. Wilkins’ improvement has led to an offense that has flashed the potential to be lethal.
SPECIAL TEAMS NEED TO BE SPECIAL
In each of its games before Washington, ASU made key special teams mistakes — most right before halftime — that were costly. Punter Michael Sleep-Dalton struggled at the beginning of the season, but is regaining his footing. If he can up his average distance on punts, it can really help an ASU offense that has often struggled by flipping the field.
Brandon Ruiz has been about as good as a true freshman kicker can be. Replacing Zane Gonzalez is difficult, and perhaps impossible, but Ruiz has been solid. His misses haven’t been bad and the Sun Devils should feel fortunate to have him. He’s also been a touchback machine on kickoffs, not allowing opposing returners to even have a shot at making a play.
The place where ASU needs improvement is in its return game. It has tried multiple options at punt returner, but none have seemed to work. Receiver Ryan Newsome had a decent return against Washington, but hasn’t yet shown signs of being the dominant returner he was in high school. The Sun Devils, however, have seemed to improve their kick and punt coverage. They limited Washington’s lethal returner Dante Pettis to just 7 yards, a good sign in a conference that features many great returners.
PLAY THE DEFENSE YOU DID AGAINST WASHINGTON
This is a bit broader than the first point. It seems obvious, but sometimes it has to be. Saturday’s defense against Washington was some of the best ASU has played in years.
ASU coach Todd Graham after the win said it was the best defensive performance one of his ASU teams has had since he began his tenure in Tempe. That’s high praise. But if the Sun Devils truly want to turn things around, they’ll need to show more of that in the second half of the season.
They pressured the quarterback. They tackled well. The coverage was great. They didn’t give up big plays. At times they bent, but they didn’t break.
If ASU shows more of that over the next six weeks, it will certainly find itself in a bowl game.
ASU sealed its win over Washington with a gutsy 4th-and-3 call. Instead of punting or kicking a field goal, Graham decided to go for it. Others were nervous, but he wasn’t.
Against Oregon, Graham called an onside kick in the first half. Why? Because he wanted to continue building on the momentum his team started the game with. And it worked. Brilliant.
In both situations, he was playing to win.
The Sun Devils need more boldness of that kind. And don’t limit this point to critical situations like the above examples. Against Oregon and Stanford, ASU showcased a flair in its playcalling that it really hadn’t displayed until then.
This offense has tons of weapons, so use them. Jumpstart the running game. Utilize N’Keal Harry’s versatility. Take advantage of the versatility on offense.
On defense, ASU showed some different things against Washington. It disguised and simulated pressure. Bennett is making the most of his inexperienced talent, especially considering ASU lost Koron Crump — its best pass-rusher — for the year.
ASU needs to be bold in all three phases. If it hopes to continue defeating teams as an underdog, it’ll need to play like it isn’t afraid to lose.