Know your foe: Arizona State
Tribune sports reporter Lucas Clark caught up with Hod Rabino, DevilsDigest.com Publisher, earlier this week to discuss a series of topics leading up to the Mustangs’ 8:07 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium.
Lucas Clark: What were some of the major takeaways from Arizona State's loss to Texas A&M on both offense and defense?
Hod Rabino: Poor game planning and lack of effective in-game adjustment are the major storylines on offense. ASU’s offensive tackles had major issues containing Texas A&M’s pass rushers. The Sun Devils could have negated that aspect by generating more north/south running and varying their snap count and cadence, but neither happened and the offense ran much slower than it usually does. Wide receivers couldn’t create separation from the secondary so in the seemingly rare event that Mike Bercovici actually had a pocket to operate in, his aerial targets couldn’t make themselves available.
On defense, it’s really hard to fault a group that kept the score so close for so long while getting little to no support from the offense. Granted, there were a few big plays given up that made the stat sheet unfavorable in the perception of this unit, but after the game literally no one was complaining of the defense’s play and this group provided much more optimism than the offense coming out of last Saturday’s contest.
LC: The Sun Devils allowed nine sacks last week. How much of that credit goes to the Aggies' defense? Is that a concern moving forward?
HR: The answer is a combination of both theories that you raised. Myles Garrett at worst will be a Top 15 NFL Draft pick when he leaves Texas A&M, and Daeshon Hall is more than likely not to going to be available beyond the second round. I truly don’t think that ASU this season will face any defensive end close to the caliber of each of those players. Not saying it should comfort ASU fans when they see nine sacks surrendered, but that still is a fact.
There were a lot of question marks about ASU’s two new starters at offensive tackle, and again they couldn’t have faced a more challenging test as they did against the Aggies. For now, it’s a concern since both Evan Goodman and Billie McGhee have a lot to prove as far as making sure everyone knows that their performance in Houston was indeed an aberration. Time will tell.
LC: Arizona State has won 16 consecutive home openers. What can Cal Poly do to challenge this Sun Devils team in front of its home crowd?
HR: The Sun Devils are just a strong home team in general, dropping just two of their last 14 games played in Tempe. In my opinion the Mustangs can possibly frustrate ASU if they do one of two things, let alone both.
First, have their triple-option offense truly click on all cylinders. While ASU has had success defending that scheme under Todd Graham the last three years, it’s still a scheme ASU rarely sees (and ironically will see next week when New Mexico visits). If ASU finds itself overthinking rather than just plain defending, Cal Poly could stand a chance to rack up the yards and the scores to ensue.
Second, being superior on special teams, which in my opinion can be the great equalizer where there is talent disparity in the skill positions. This, much like the ASU offense, was a major shortcoming last week and this group isn’t exactly brimming with confidence right now. If Cal Poly can effectively execute its returns and coverages, it may just find more success than they thought they would have found in this week’s game.
LC: It's hard to believe D.J. Foster is still in college. How will he close out an already successful career in Tempe?
HR: When you play as a true freshman and stay all four years, it sure does feel like you have been here twice as long. Foster has made the transition to wide receiver this year, but last week with a sudden illness situation regarding running back Kalen Ballage, Foster retuned on a few downs to old stomping grounds in the Sun Devil backfield. Unfortunately, even playing a dual role netted Foster just nine overall touches, which was his lowest total since 2013. That stat drew the ire of ASU fans especially on a night where the offense was anemic to say the least.
So this week I look for Foster to line up all over the field and get a lot of touches early and often in the game and make his performance in Houston a distant memory.
LC: Todd Graham said losing to Texas A&M has already made ASU a better football team. Is that just coach speak, and do you believe the Sun Devils are still a College Football Playoff contender?
HR: Todd Graham has never shied away from making bold statements, but then again most of them do ultimately materialize. He is right that even playing poorly against Texas A&M still gives the coaches a more accurate snapshot image of their team than playing Cal Poly or New Mexico. Granted, it was a painful way, if you will, to showcase all your deficiencies but this loss could be beneficial if ASU is able to effectively implement the various corrections needed by all its groups.
The popular notion for months now has been that the true identity of this ASU team would be revealed after back to game games against the L.A. schools starting in late September. So the playoffs question will be much easier to ascertain at that time. For now, I truly believe the jury in terms of an answer to that question. It’s just hard to make sweeping conclusions after just one game.
Cal Poly's win over Montana, who beat North Dakota State the week before, had to be a surprise. Do you feel that Montana was still basking in the glory of their season opener win and didn't take Cal Poly seriously?
LC: To people outside the program, Cal Poly beating Montana probably seemed like a big upset. But you won't hear any of that coming from the players or head coach Tim Walsh. The Mustangs handed Montana one of its most lopsided losses of the season in 2014 in San Luis Obispo, and the Grizzlies needed overtime to win in Missoula back in 2013. Given the Week 1 win against NDSU, I think the public perception of Montana was a bit inflated. Walsh said neither team played their best game last week, and Cal Poly was able to overcome several miscues to give itself an opportunity to win late.
HR: Do you feel this win perhaps exceeds the preseason expectations some had for Cal Poly?
LC: When you look at Cal Poly's first six games of the season — five opponents ranked in the FCS preseason top 25, and of course, ASU — it's hard to imagine an FCS team playing a more difficult schedule. From an outsider's perspective, a 3-3 record at the end of those six weeks would probably be pretty exciting. With that said, Cal Poly had only won once in its previous 12 trips to Missoula and winning there Week 1 on a last-second field goal set the tone for an interesting month of September.
HR: What were some of the aspects that impressed you the most about that Cal Poly win?
LC: The defense far surpassed my expectations. Having to replace All-American linebackers Nick Dzubnar (now on the San Diego Chargers' 53-man roster) and Cameron Ontko this offseason was a big task. But defensive coordinator Josh Brown, who was a graduate assistant at ASU in 2006, came up with a solid game plan against the Grizzlies. Cal Poly kept everything in front of the secondary and limited big, explosive plays. They'll have to do the same against an athletic Sun Devils group this weekend.
HR: Who are some of the key players for the Mustangs on both sides of the ball and what makes them so significant to the team?
LC: It all starts with fifth-year senior quarterback Chris Brown. He ran and passed for more than 1,000 yards last season and runs the Mustangs' triple-option offense extremely well. Other guys to keep an eye on offensively include junior running back Kori Garcia, who also rushed for 1,000 yards last season, and sophomore fullback Joe Protheroe.
Defensively, senior linebacker Tu’uta Inoke had a breakout game against Montana. He finished with a career-high 16 tackles and forced two fumbles. Same goes for safety B.J. Nard, who intercepted three passes and finished with six tackles. Nard is a pretty neat story. He redshirted in 2012 and missed all of 2013 and 2014 recovering from a knee injury. It had been nearly four years in between games when he took the field against the Grizzlies. Nard is one of the more physically gifted defenders and looks the part of a Pac-12-caliber athlete.
HR: Generally speaking do you feel that the Cal Poly coaches and players have quickly forgotten about that Montana win because Arizona State is a much better opponent or do you feel that they feel confident they can pull an upset?
LC: My feeling is Cal Poly flushed the Montana win pretty quickly. Coaches broke down film Sunday morning and they made some corrections Monday, but it’s been all ASU from then on. The Sun Devils are obviously the most athletic and talented team the Mustangs will face this season. While the team isn’t talking about an upset or “shocking the world” they fully expect to be competitive come Saturday. Weird things can happen — as we all saw with Portland State’s win at WSU —and Cal Poly's unorthodox offense can create some problems. If they're able to eat up big chunks of time and keep things close going into the fourth quarter, Brown has the big play potential to make things interesting.