Arizona State Football: The Sun Devils' To-Do List for the Final 5 Games
And on the eighth week, they rested.
The Arizona State Sun Devils enjoyed their bye week atop the Pac-12 South Division standings with a 5-2 overall record and a 3-1 conference mark.
By and large, their season has been a rousing success. Important wins against Missouri, USC and Utah have served as the highlights of a campaign that has proven to many that the 2011 Sun Devils are a legitimate force in the conference.
However, for all the warranted optimism, there are several areas of legitimate concern.
With a remaining schedule that is comprised of five teams that should all be underdogs to ASU, here now are the top five priorities for the team to work on down the stretch.
No. 5: Find a Dependable Backup Running Back
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Running back seemed to be one of the Sun Devils' strengths heading into the season. With Cameron Marshall, Deantre Lewis, Kyle Middlebrooks and sometimes Jamal Miles, the backfield was loaded with young, fast and dynamic playmakers.
However, Lewis was shot in February, an injury that ultimately ended his season, hampering the depth.
Marshall has been good thus far, rushing for 518 yards and a conference-leading nine touchdowns. However, he's been hobbled by injured ankles that have limited his top-end burst and speed.
Behind him, Middlebrooks has seen the most carries with 26 but has only totaled 86 yards, a paltry average of 3.3 yards per carry. Over the last two games, he's only had two carries for negative-12 yards and overall has been a disappointment.
The versatile Miles is second on the team in rushing with 169 yards on 20 carries, but 51 of those came on one swing pass in Oregon, and Miles spends most of his time at wide receiver, where his 33 receptions lead the team.
In fact, taking away the sack yardage that comes off a quarterback's rushing total, Brock Osweiler is actually the team's second-leading rusher with 195 yards.
Reserves R.J. Robinson and Marcus Washington haven't seen much time but may see some action down the stretch against what figures to be inferior competition. That said, it's important that Middlebrooks and Miles become more of a factor in the run game so as to keep the pressure and load off Marshall.
No. 4: Don't Play for the SportsCenter Top 10
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One of the dangers of being a team that receives a lot of hype and attention is that at some point, it may be believed.
At far too many points, the Sun Devil defense became believers.
It started during their nationally televised game against then-No. 21 Missouri. Throughout the game, the entire defense went for the flashy tackle or turnover attempt, only to see the Tiger ball-carriers run right by them. As safety Eddie Elder said after a team meeting, there were 28 missed tackles during that game.
Against Oregon State, Utah and Oregon, there were also numerous plays where a solid wrap-up tackle or fundamentally sound coverage would have been smart, but instead defenders such as Alden Darby and Vontaze Burfict went for the sizzle instead of the steak. It's something that every member of the defense seems to have been afflicted by at some point.
Even with such lapses, this is a defense that can make a difference. This is no more evident than in their 20 turnovers, sixth-most in the nation. However, it can only take one missed tackle to cost a team a win.
No. 3: Improved Production from the Defensive Line
Over the offseason, the defensive line saw two starters leave the program. Tackle Lawrence Guy declared for the NFL draft, and end James Brooks transferred to Northern Alabama.
With the return of tackle Will Sutton and a year of experience for star end Junior Onyeali, it was expected that the losses wouldn't hurt too much.
Then Onyeali went down with a torn meniscus early against Illinois in Week 3 and has been out ever since.
Since the injury, the line has had some terrific moments, such as the pass rush against USC or Jamarr Jarrett's dominant two-sack effort against Oregon State, but overall it has been just average.
Sutton has not had the major breakout season many expected, the pass rush has been largely inconsistent and the line's lack of depth became frighteningly evident against Oregon, when it was worn down by the Ducks' speed in a second half in which it gave up 296 yards on the ground.
The line will see the return of Onyeali against Colorado, but it will need to improve its play against the run and the pass for the Sun Devils to make a run at the Rose Bowl.
No. 2: Play Smarter
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Telling the Sun Devils to play smarter is like telling a tiger not to bite or a lawyer to tell the truth—it's simply not in their nature.
Nevertheless, it must appear on this list.
Their most recent game against Oregon serves as a prime example.
Oregon's first two touchdown drives of the game featured major direct help courtesy of personal foul penalties. Its third touchdown came after a interception on a throw that was in large part called because of another personal foul penalty on the prior play for taunting.
The Sun Devils have always lived on the edge between aggressiveness and recklessness. They've gotten lucky so far that their foolish mistakes haven't done more damage, but sooner or later it will catch up to them and cause them to lose a game they should not lose.
No. 1: Shore Up the Offensive Line
With all eight players who made starts along the offensive line last season returning, there were legitimate expectations that the front five would be among the best units on the team.
So far, those expectations have not been met. At all.
The Sun Devil offense boasts enough playmakers at the skill positions that it should have no problem scoring 30 or more points on a weekly basis. However, that is entirely contingent upon the offensive line doing its job.
The first sign of weakness was the pass protection against Illinois. Brock Osweiler was under fire all game long. He was sacked six times and pressured countless more times, and it was the fumble off a fourth-quarter sack that ultimately led to the game-winning score for the Illini.
In their other loss against Oregon, Osweiler went down another four times, and the constant pressure was a major factor, as the offense lost its momentum in the second half.
As shaky as the pass protection has been, the run blocking has been worse. Much worse.
On the season, the team is only averaging 3.8 yards per carry, and it bottomed out with an embarrassing 1.9-yard average on the road against Utah. In four of their six games against FBS competition, the Sun Devils have failed to register a per-carry average of over 3.5, which is just plain bad.
The ASU running backs are talented, but there simply hasn't been a lot of room to run.
Yes, there have been injuries that have effected the continuity, but with their experienced depth, the lack of success is inexcusable.
As the conference competition heats up and the weather turns bad, the Devils will need to lean heavily on their line to allow their playmakers to actually make plays.
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