Sun Devils hoping to kick into next gear
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Arizona State faced an SEC opponent in its first game and lost. The Sun Devils faced an FCS opponent in their second game and won.
In neither game did they play particularly well.
With less than two weeks until the start of the Pac-12 season, it's time for the Sun Devils to turn things around.
''We've done some good things to this point, but we need to hit good strides and not just play well here and there,'' coach Todd Graham said Monday.
Before the season, Graham called this year's team the best he's had in the desert. The Sun Devils were ranked 15th in The Associated Press Top 25 and were a trendy pick to play in the second College Football Playoff.
Through two games, they have yet to come close to those expectations.
Arizona State opened with a 38-17 loss to Texas A&M that featured a sputtering start on offense and a disastrous day on special teams.
The Sun Devils cleaned up some of their mistakes in Saturday's 35-21 win over Cal Poly, but it wasn't the dominating performance everyone expected.
Though the offense put up big numbers - five touchdowns, 531 total yards - it had numerous miscues, including a pair of crucial turnovers. Despite spending a week of preparing for Cal Poly's triple option, the defense had a hard time getting its assignments right, particularly on the Mustangs' dive option up the middle.
''Are we playing our best football? No. We have things we need to get better at,'' Graham said. ''I tell you this: It (the Cal Poly game) could have been a lot worse. We could have lost. I'll take a win and move on.''
One of the biggest concerns has been turnovers.
Graham proclaimed ball security as priority No. 1 when he first got the job and Arizona State's coaches harp on it constantly, starting every practice with drills to emphasize holding onto the ball.
The Sun Devils have been one of the nation's best at taking care of the ball, too, ranking seventh nationally with a turnover margin of plus-15 last season and sixth in 2013 with 14 turnovers gained.
So far this year, they've put the ball on the ground and in the other team's hands too much.
Arizona State had five fumbles in the opener, losing two, and lost one of its three fumbles against Cal Poly. The fumble on Saturday turned out to be crucial; Cal Poly snatched momentum heading into halftime by driving for a touchdown after tight end Kody Kohl lost the ball trying to gain extra yards.
Mike Bercovici also threw an interception in the end zone and Arizona State's returners bobbled a couple of punts, though the Sun Devils managed to recover both.
''That's something that has got to be an emphasis,'' Graham said. ''Nothing is more important.''
Arizona State also has yet to rev up its high-octane offense. The Sun Devils have played fast at times, though have yet to really get their quick-hitting attack in full gear.
Some of it is getting the new players up to game speed. There also have been injuries that have slowed the Sun Devils down, particularly to running back Kalen Ballage and along the offensive line. A failure to get quick first downs also has contributed.
Arizona State uses its fast tempo to set up explosive plays and those long gainers have been rare through the first two games, something it knows needs to change.
''Our preparation changed a little,'' Bercovici said. ''Today we had a big emphasis on moving the ball quick. It really is a mindset.''
Arizona State's defensive was solid against Texas A&M except for a few breakdowns that led to long touchdowns, but that group struggled against Cal Poly's triple option.
Stopping the option is predicated on players sticking to their assignments, which Arizona State's coaches preached all week in practice. Once the game started, some of the Sun Devils forgot their assignments and just charged up the field, leading to big gains right up the gut of their defense. Cal Poly ran for 284 yards.
''We did a really, really poor job,'' Graham said. ''We were basically just running up the field, doing a little freelancing and we can't do that, particularly against a triple option team.''
The Sun Devils better get it figured out quick. Their next opponent, New Mexico, also runs the triple option.