No. 15 Sun Devils surprised by stumble in opener
The defense offset a mostly solid performance with a couple of big breakdowns at inopportune moments.
And, despite putting a huge offseason emphasis on special teams, the Sun Devils had a mistake-filled night, punctuated by a series of gaffes that led to one game-changing play.
Instead of a coming-out party, the 15th-ranked Sun Devils found themselves nursing a hangover after losing their season opener 38-17 to the Aggies in Houston.
''I was really surprised at how undisciplined we were,'' Arizona State coach Todd Graham said Monday. ''You play an opponent like that and make mistakes, you're going to get exposed.''
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Arizona State's inability to move the ball offensively.
The Sun Devils have been one of the nation's most prolific offenses in four seasons under Graham, but they sputtered against Texas A&M on Saturday.
Quarterback Mike Bercovici, in his first season as the starter, was in trouble for most of the night. Arizona State's interior linemen played well, but new tackles Evan Goodman and Billy McGehee struggled to keep up with the speed of Texas A&M's talented defensive ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall.
The Sun Devils gave them an extra jump by failing to alter the snap cadence, in part because of the crowd noise, but also because mistakes in alignment had them scrambling against the play clock. That allowed Garrett, Hall and the rest of the Aggies to jump across the line almost before the Sun Devils were out of their stances.
''When the play clock is winding down, everyone knows the snap is coming,'' Bercovici said.
Arizona State's receivers had trouble gaining separation from the Aggies' cornerbacks and didn't help themselves by dropping passes and running wrong routes.
With constant pressure and receivers unable to break open, the big-armed Bercovici had few chances to throw long and stretch the field. The senior exacerbated the problems by holding onto the ball too long a few times, leading to nine sacks by Texas A&M.
The running game didn't help much, either. The Sun Devils had a few good runs between the tackles, but tried to stretch too many to the outside without much luck, finishing with 92 yards on 41 carries.
It certainly didn't help that sophomore running back Kalen Ballage was sent home on Friday after the team discovered he has mononucleosis. He was expected to be a key part of the game plan and a big contributor on special teams, so losing him a day before the game threw a wrench into Arizona State's preparations.
Graham said Ballage is expected to be back in a week or two.
Even with Ballage out, do-everything junior D.J. Foster had a mostly quiet game. Arizona State's plan heading into the season was to line him up at several positions and get him the ball as many times as possible, yet he had 61 yards on nine touches.
''We didn't get No. 8 (Foster) involved,'' Graham said. ''He has to get the ball more.''
Arizona State's defense controlled Texas A&M at the line of scrimmage for most of the game, but had a couple of key mistakes, including one on a bubble screen that resulted in a 66-yard touchdown that all but put the game away.
But what bothered Graham the most were the special teams' gaffes.
Arizona State had a chance to break off one long kickoff return, but a mistake on one block prevented a chance at a touchdown. The Sun Devils also had two penalties for running into the punter - one by a player who wasn't even supposed to be rushing the kick.
The big mistake came in the second quarter, when Texas A&M freshman Christian Kirk returned a punt for a 79-yard touchdown. Graham said three players were not where they were supposed to be, leaving it up to the punter and long snapper to try tackling Kirk, which didn't work out too well.
''It was really surprising to me,'' Graham said. ''We had spent twice as much time on special teams than we had in the past, in meetings and on the field. We had executed well (in practice), so I have all the confidence in the world.''