Arizona State Football: 5 Most Important Takeaways from September
The Arizona State football team has jumped out to a 3-1 start with a September to remember for the most part.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly has picked up right where he left off last year and Marion Grice has solidified his spot as one of the best running backs in the country.
However, while the offense has had plenty of success, ASU's defense has struggled mightily thus far.
The Sun Devils were supposed to be one of the most feared defenses in the Pac-12, but so far they have had more holes than an old man's sock.
The special teams unit has also had its fair share of struggles, most notably at punter. In the Sun Devils' win over Southern Cal, former place-kicker Alex Garoutte was relegated to punting duties after neither Matt Haack nor Dom Vizzare could get the job done.
Through all the struggles though, ASU has found ways to win.
Head coach Todd Graham has done a masterful job at making halftime adjustments. In essentially every game this season, the Sun Devils have come out and dominated the second half.
Except for the first half of ASU's game against Stanford, September went according to plan for the Sun Devils.
They will head to Dallas for their marquee matchup against Notre Dame with only one loss and momentum on their side.
Let's take a look at the five biggest takeaways from the Sun Devils for the first month of the season.
All stats from ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.
Run Defense Is a Major Issue
Arizona State's run defense has been atrocious this season.
During the offseason, the Sun Devils put a major focus on improving their run defense after ranking near the bottom of the Pac-12 in that category last year. Many hoped they could solidify this area in 2013.
Interestingly enough, their run defense has gotten even worse this season.
It's actually surprising that Arizona State has only one loss right now considering how poorly their run defense has performed.
Through four games, Arizona State has allowed opponents to rush for an average of 192.25 yards a game and 5.16 yards per attempt. Opponents have opened gaping holes and once their running backs reach the second level, poor pursuit angles and poor tackling have really hurt the Sun Devils.
USC running backs Tre Madden and Justin Davis both had 100-yard rushing games against ASU, and Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin torched ASU for 193 yards.
It's alarming how much the Sun Devils are struggling against the run.
They can't get consistent penetration or set the edge on a regular basis. As Alex Williams of Arizonasports.com writes, Arizona State's struggles against the run are mainly due to their inability to make tackles in space:
Between Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Chris Young and Osahon Irabor, the Sun Devils' boundary-side defense hasn't been a problem area, and Graham singled those four out as "playing at a high level against the run." But the Sun Devils have been burned to the field side — the direction opposite whichever hash mark the ball is spotted on — where it's easier to get ball carriers in open spaces and exploit individual matchups.
For the Sun Devils to compete for the Pac-12 crown, they need to solidify their run defense.
The Offense Is High Octane
While the defense has struggled, Arizona State's offense has shown the ability to rack up points in bunches.
USC came into Tempe, Ariz., having not allowed any team to score more than 35 points or have more than 285 yards of total offense.
Arizona State scored 62 points and had 612 total yards against the Trojans.
That performance cost former USC head coach Lane Kiffin his job. The Sun Devils also put up 417 yards against Stanford in their loss to the Cardinal.
While their play-calling has been questionable at times and their receivers have struggled with dropped passes, there's no denying that the Sun Devils' offense is high octane. When they're clicking, it's nearly impossible to stop them.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly has played excellent so far, having thrown for 1,370 yards, 11 touchdowns and only four interceptions this year.
The offense is only as good as Kelly plays, however, and fortunately for ASU, Kelly has had an excellent September. He finally emerged as a rushing threat against USC, and if he can excel at running the read-option offense, opposing defenses won't know what hit them.
The key to the Sun Devils' offensive success is their quick pace, and for most of September, they ran their offense at breakneck speeds.
They have to keep that up to continue their winning ways.
ASU Is a Second-Half Team
The past couple games for Arizona State have been a tale of two halves.
The Sun Devils entered halftime in Palo Alto, Calif., trailing Stanford, 39-7, and then came out in the second half to score four touchdowns and almost complete an astonishing comeback.
Against USC, ASU was only up six points at the break before coming out in the third quarter and scoring 28 unanswered points en route to a 62-41 victory.
It's not just the offense that has improved at the half, though. The Arizona State defense has made adjustments to let the offense get back into games as well.
The video clip from Pac-12 Network's "The Drive" showcases how Todd Graham rallied his troops at halftime against Stanford. ASU could have easily mailed it in against the Cardinal, but instead showed great heart and determination to make the game respectable.
This has been a trend for ASU all season. While their first halves have been slow, the Sun Devils have made adjustments at the break that have led them to victories.
Special Teams' Woes Will Haunt the Sun Devils
They say the devil is in the details, and for Arizona State, its special teams haven't paid much attention to detail.
Sun Devil fans wouldn't have guessed that former punter Josh Hubner would be one of the players they missed most from last year's team, but Arizona State's current disastrous punting situation has many shaking their head.
After ASU's loss to Stanford, head coach Todd Graham told Azcentral.com's Doug Haller the special teams unit needed to get things going:
We just got to go to work. The big thing is our punt and kickoff cover (teams). We put ourselves so far behind in (Saturday’s) first half because of special teams.
The punting situation has gotten so bad that Arizona State sent former place-kicker Alex Garoutte into the game to punt against Southern Cal.
In the offseason, Zane Gonzalez was billed as the savior of the Sun Devils' kicking game. Unfortunately for ASU, he hasn't lived up to those expectations. Gonzalez has already missed three field goals this year and has looked uncomfortable on most of his attempts.
Kicking has been an issue for ASU the past few years, but their inability to constantly punt the ball effectively has hurt them as well. The Sun Devils' punt team has been surprisingly bad thus far and must improve quickly so that Arizona State can prevent opposing teams from working with short fields.
Marion Grice Is a Heisman Candidate
Arizona State running back Marion Grice leads the nation with 12 touchdowns and has showcased the ability to score at will thus far.
He has scored 72 points this season and is averaging 18 points per game.
His ability to make defenders miss and make something out of nothing makes Grice a truly special player. He's the kind of guy you have to get the ball to on offense.
As Doug Haller of Azcentral.com. writes, Grice is already moving up the all-time ASU touchdown list, even though he has only played one full season with the Maroon and Gold:
Grice has scored 31 touchdowns in 17 games, which puts him seventh in school history. He averages a touchdown every 7.45 touches from scrimmage. And they’re not all coming at the goal line. Sixty-one percent of Grice’s touchdowns have come from distances greater than 5 yards. Twenty-nine percent have come from distances greater than 15.
The senior from Houston has made opposing defenses look silly this season.
If he keeps putting up those kind of numbers, even with his lack of yardage production, it would be hard for anyone to not give Grice Heisman Trophy consideration.