Thanks as well to ATQ’s Tristan Holmes for some of the preliminary charting work on ASU.
The massive personnel transformation that Head Coach Dillingham started upon arriving in Tempe this season – a 50-player turnover, second in FBS only to Colorado – was going to be a difficult project even in ideal circumstances, but the plague of injuries to this team has been far from that. ASU has faced deep instability at every offensive position except tight end, with the severest problems at the worst possible places: quarterback and offensive line.
The result has been an offense that just can’t reliably move the ball, despite having several high performing individual pieces and a great playcaller since Dillingham took back those duties from OC Baldwin after week 3. In the aggregate, the Sun Devils are underwater in their season long per-play efficiency at 45.2% outside garbage time (250 successes vs 303 failures, given the down & distance), averaging just 5.4 adjusted YPP with only 12.5% of plays achieving explosive yardage.
They’ve played four different quarterbacks (plus a handful of gadgets with non-QBs throwing the ball) due to injuries and ineffectiveness, and the passing offense with each QB is underwater, though some much more than others. If called passing plays from everyone except for #16 QB Bourguet, whom Hod expects to play tomorrow and has about 60% of the season’s meaningful passing snaps, are excluded from the dataset then the aggregate efficiency rate would rise by about three percentage points, but the yardage and explosiveness figures would stay essentially unchanged.
On the podcast, Hod and I recounted the full history of the quarterback injury and performance situation, which at this point is rather dire. The most promising is #5 QB Rashada, a true freshman bluechip who started the year and played two games before getting hurt, but with extremely poor numbers on my tally sheet against FCS Southern Utah and Oklahoma State (Hod thinks that’s partly due to Baldwin’s playcalling and wondered how he’d perform with Dillingham calling the shots; I agree that’d be an upgrade but what I saw on film was a kid who just wasn’t ready to play college football, though I still think the investment in the future in what amounts to a lost season was the right move).
Rashada finally started practicing again this week, but after we recorded Hod passed along that Dillingham announced Rashada won’t be playing except in an emergency on Saturday. The only other QB available besides Bourguet is BYU transfer #15 QB Conover, who is simply not effective at the position.
Bourguet took a lower leg injury early in week 10 against Utah, tried to come back for a drive later in the game, but otherwise sat out the rest of that contest. Last week against UCLA Bourguet played the entire game, except for quite a few gadget plays and wildcat snaps given to #4 RB Skattebo and #12 TE Conyers, and I thought he looked a little stiff at first but pretty mobile as the game went on and he warmed up. Hod said he’s been taking first team reps all week in practice and has looked fine.
The passing offense with Bourguet taking snaps has an efficiency rate of 45.1% (92 successes vs 112 failures), averaging 6.4 adjusted YPA with 15.5% of his passes gaining 15+ yards. From observing him the past two seasons (although it’s added up to only maybe one full season worth of snaps, the former walk-on took over the job midway through last year) I think Bourguet has a lot of admirable mental and physical traits in a QB, but ultimately has some arm talent limitations in terms of deep downfield power and accuracy.
The other major factor for ASU is that their offensive line injury situation is nothing short of catastrophic. They’ve suffered an injury and had to shuffle the starting line around virtually every week this Fall, and they were starting in a parlous position from the offseason to begin with. Hod thinks they’ll be able to field the same starting lineup this week as they did last week, which if true would be the first time they’ve done so since week 5 and only the second time all season. This has put a massive constraint on the passing offense in terms of very little and unreliable pocket time, and so the rate of screens and quick short throws from ASU is the highest in the conference.
Here’s a representative sample of Bourguet successfully running the passing offense from the last four games:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – Conyers is one of two the excellent returning skill players that the offense, if it weren’t so otherwise snakebitten, could have been built around. He’s got soft hands and a hard stick.
- :14 – This is a pass rush mistake given QB’s athleticism, it’s letting a long developing route by #6 WR Sanders (with whom Bourguet had a strong connection last year, though that’s tapered off in 2023) get open and there’s nobody to run him down when he changes the angle.
- :24 – ASU had no successful passes against Utah prior to garbage time. This was the closest they came to one, with CU transfer #0 WR Tyson (who’s only recently joined the rotation after recuperating from an injury but put out some impressive tape in the past) breaking wide open but Utah’s pass rush getting through easily and forcing an off target throw.
- :39 – Here’s the other quality returner, #2 WR Badger. His speed usually earns him a pretty big cushion from coverage and that’s translated into a lot of easy yards on quick routes before the pass rush gets home, like this comeback.
And unsuccessful passing plays:
- :00 – ASU has six receivers on the roster at 6’2” or bigger and should have had more of an outside game, but due to several problems Hod and I discussed they’ve really just had Badger and #9 Omeire, and the latter hasn’t been nearly as reliable. Bourguet targeted him on six 50/50 balls against UW but neither the QB has the pinpoint accuracy nor Omeire the hands to beat the coverage so they were all incompletions, with UW only needing a mulligan from the refs on the last one.
- :18 – Bourguet is a pretty cool-headed QB and won’t panic or play hero-ball under pressure, instead predictably taking the checkdown. That’s probably for the best, on balance, but it means a lot of plays like this that end in an unproductive completion followed by a punt.
- :32 – At this point in the season, having any other back in besides Skattebo had been a strong indicator that it was going to be an outside screen to him, and Utah knew it – they blew up every single attempt by ASU, starting with this one. This would be open if the corner followed the receiver inside in man but he’s staying put in zone, so I’m not sure why Bourguet throws this anyway; he should turn and find the swing to Badger on the other side given the coverage.
- :48 – Despite UCLA’s pass rush this was the only “sack” the Bruins got last week due to Bourguet’s escapability. At any rate, they certainly have no problem penetrating while rushing only three, but there’s also no outlet given that ASU has eight blockers and only two in the pattern – that’s what a blocking situation this bad will do to your numbers.
The most pleasant surprise that Dillingham got from the transfer portal has been Skattebo, whom I sincerely believe should be the frontrunner for the Paul Hornung Award for most versatile player. Due to injuries to Cal transfer #25 RB Brooks and returner #21 RB Hart, and the surprising ineffectiveness of returning bluechip #28 RB White (who had pretty promising numbers as a true freshman last year, so that’s a mystery), Skattebo has had to take on almost the entirety of the carries at this point.
On the season, the rushing offense has pretty good efficiency at 56.5% (117 vs 90), though very poor yardage and explosiveness at 4.1 adjusted YPC with only 10.5% gaining 10+ yards. There are a few things going on here. First, Brooks was actually their best back on an individual basis, with nearly a 72% success rate on his carries (Skattebo is only about 52%), and his loss has been pretty significant both in terms of what he brought to the table in reading collapsing lanes and picking better options with a problematic o-line, and being able to share the load with Skattebo.
Second, while this offense is pretty good at short-yardage rushing to pick up the conversion (76% on 2nd & short, 63% on 3rd & short), a few yards and a 1st down is pretty much all they get on such carries. That’s created a real skew in their play selection, with passing being preferred on over 60% of 1st & 10s and 70% of all other downs except 3rd & short (including 2nd & short, even though they’re much better at rushing in that situation – they’re looking at the analytical game and trying to leverage deeper passing plays then, with very mixed results).
Here’s a representative sample of recent rushing successes:
- :00 – He doesn’t have a lot of carries, but on a YPC basis Badger’s sweeps are by far the most effective run play ASU has available right now. This is a nice play design against man coverage, the X-receiver takes two guys out of the play at once with the block and the CB over him, and what’s left to stop it requires lateral speed from the LB or a good angle from the DB, neither of which are in evidence from UW.
- :17 – Something’s gone wrong between the H-back and the RT so the end is both unblocked and unread and he should be making the play, but Skattebo is so quick to the hole it doesn’t matter, and then he just runs through the undersized DT for a 1st down.
- :31 – ASU didn’t have many successful run plays against Utah either. This one only succeeded because of the Utes’ periodic insanity of having the DT evacuate the gap and run to the sideline for reasons I have never been able to discern for the 13 years of the Pac-12’s existence.
- :37 – UCLA would be in a better position to stop this if Coach Kelly had recruited a single viable prep DT at any point in six years.
And recent rushing failures:
- :00 – This is why runs get at most a couple of yards - the OL has its hands full with just the DTs, no one is getting off their combos and up to second or third level to open up anything bigger. The DB has enough time to come down nine yards to make the stop unblocked, with help from the CB and LB who are also unblocked.
- :07 – Too much speed from Wazzu’s defense, and inadequate blocking to seal them inside, for this endaround by Badger to turn the corner.
- :17 – Here’s a perfect illustration of the different talent levels on offense – this toss to the boundary requires the entire team to block, and note who’s winning theirs: Badger and Conyers, plus Skattebo’s barreling for something as his own blocker. Everybody else? Well, the portal opens up on December 4th.
- :24 – Okay Kelly did get one big DT from USC, you can’t just run right into him.
This has been the much stronger side of the ball in 2023, with the 50th rank in F+ advanced statistics compared to 96th for the offense. DC Ward has brought over the attacking 4-2-5 structure from Wazzu and Nevada before that, and inherited a couple good edge rushers and an experienced secondary from the similar defensive system of the previous staff. I think Ward has been one of the better coordinator hires in the conference this season; last year when he was at Wazzu I noted that against several tricky offenses the Cougs were consistently one of the few teams that wouldn’t fall for any given deception.
On my tally sheet, ASU has an aggregate defensive success rate of 48.7% (268 vs 282), allowing 6.2 YPP with 16.5% of opponents’ plays achieving explosive yardage. Breaking out their numbers reveals some rather stark and interesting contrasts between effectiveness defending different types of plays, opponents, and down & distance situations, and also between various units on the squad.
The defense needed to add depth and talent to every position given a significant amount of turnover throughout the squad, but had the most work to do on the defensive line. For much of the offseason I was concerned they wouldn’t even have enough interior d-linemen to field a competitive squad, but they’ve had a couple of major additions who have completely turned around that projection: Michigan State transfer #0 DT Mallory and true freshman #99 DT Fite, who are both big and powerful enough to be game-changers.
Two of the bluechip edge transfers they got have also worked out well, #32 DE Dorbah from Texas and #3 DE C. Smith from Florida, and they’ve gotten good backup production from returners that ASU hadn’t played last year in #91 DE Matus (who had an ACL injury) and #49 DE Stansbury (who redshirted), alongside the starter #35 DE Green who’s been one of the nation’s leading sack artists for several years.
As a result, this team has been led by its defensive line all year long, and their numbers reflect it. One of the starkest disparities is 3rd down pass defenses, comparing short vs long yardage situations. In the former, when the defensive line has to set the edge and contain the run and therefore the back end of the defense is solely responsible for defending the pass, they’re only successful 41% of the time, that is, opponents convert 59% of the time by passing the ball on 3rd & short, a much worse defensive performance than average. However, when it’s 3rd & long and the pass rush is free to attack the QB, defensive success rate jumps to an astonishing 87%, one of the biggest leaps I’ve ever seen in nearly a full season of data.
On the whole, ASU’s pass defense success rate is 51.7% (179 vs 167), allowing 6.4 YPA and 14% of opponents’ passes to gain 15+ yards. Those are a bit better than average numbers for a Power-5 defense. The explosive pass defense number oscillates wildly from game to game, however, with four games having worse than a 22% rate (week 2 OK State, week 4 USC, week 8 UW, and week 11 UCLA), and another four having a single digit rate (week 3 Fresno, week 5 Cal, week 6 CU, and week 10 Utah).
In my opinion from watching all that film, I think what’s happening is that ASU has mediocre pass coverage and a high quality pass rush, so those four great defensive performances were about getting through a weak o-line and/or to a poor QB more quickly than the coverage could break down, while in the four bad ones the situation was reversed with the QB picking apart the coverage before the pass rush could get home. (Last week against UCLA both things were happening, the pass rush wrecked a lousy o-line and some clever passing was tearing up the coverage. Really, UCLA should have won that game, and Coach Kelly blew it with some poor decisions that cost the Bruins a lot of points.)
Unfortunately, ASU has recently taken some injuries to their pass rushers: Matus is hurt again and his career is likely over, Hod said that Dorbah (who has six sacks this season along with Green) will probably be out for this game, and the offensive line situation is so dire that backup #92 DE Benjamin has been practicing with the OL. They should still have a good four-man rotation with Green, Smith, Stansbury, and the Juco #15 DE O’Neal.
The other issue I noticed is that midfield pass coverage is by far the weakest area statistically and qualitatively from watching film, and yet bizarrely several teams (most notably UW and CU, but also WSU) were reluctant to attack it, whereas the teams that put up points almost effortlessly (USC and Utah) thrived there. In my opinion, ASU lacks necessary lateral speed and change-of-direction ability in their linebackers, something Hod and I discussed as part of the next step in transforming this roster. Hod also told me ASU got an adverse NCAA ruling about their most talented safety transfer’s eligibility, which has meant they don’t have much depth or reliable tackling in the middle of the field.
Here’s a representative sample of successful pass defenses over the last four games:
- :00 – Pretty sloppy blitz pickup from a line that made the Joe Moore semifinalist list somehow. The QB is hit as he throws yet again, but who else is he going to throw to, there’s only two guys in the pattern because they needed this many back in for protection against Arizona State.
- :19 – Great job splitting the LT and LG by Green and forcing an errant throw.
- :26 – The sharp-eyed reader will note that on 3rd downs ASU swaps out one of their DTs for a third DE for even more of a pass rush, in this case Fite is out and Green has moved inside. Dorbah flushes the QB from the edge, Green is fast enough to get off the block and contain the QB, and Smith cleans up from the other side of the formation.
- :36 – Again it’s just one DT and three DEs on the line on 3rd down (with Dorbah out, O’Neal and Stansbury have been seeing more run; this is O’Neal against the LT), plus one of the LBs has come down to blitz. They’re just destroying UCLA’s OL since Kelly didn’t recruit any of those either.
And unsuccessful pass defenses:
- :00 – I think the trio of outside CBs that rotate — #4 CB Ford, #9 CB Torrence, and #10 CB Woods – are more competent than some in the league, but this kind of play isn’t uncommon on my tally sheet against the better receivers – huge cushion, slow recovery, and poor tackling form that gives up a lot of extra yards.
- :21 – This pattern is a classic Air Raid staple and you’d think #82 LB T. Brown, who came over with DC Ward from Wazzu, would be used to seeing it – he’s got to react as soon as the back pulls off the other backer. The middle of the field is essentially empty against the tight end on an easy completion.
- :29 – ASU is crowding the line in short yardage and then bailing to man, which means it’s one of the linebackers’ responsibility to take the RB wheeling out of the backfield but everybody’s got their backs to the play while the ball’s already out. This should look pretty familiar to Oregon fans by now.
- :36 – UCLA is in twins and you can see the entire coverage is walking back on all four routes. The rush doesn’t immediately get home, there’s no underneath coverage to speak of, and the QB gets to take his pick of whichever cushion looks the softest because none of the DBs will play physically.
ASU’s rush defense is very interesting to break out. On the whole, they’re having a fairly poor season statistically, with a badly underwater success rate of 43.6% (89 vs 115) while allowing 5.9 adjusted YPC and over 20% of opponents’ designed rushes to gain 10+ yards. They’re particularly bad in short-yardage, under 40% defensive success rate on 2nd & short and under 20% on 3rd & short.
However, when examining their playtype defensive success rates, there’s a big spike in effectiveness at a certain play, which happens to be the most common rushing play in the Pac-12: simple inside zone. That’s because the best defensive players they have are the big tackles Fite and Mallory, and opposing lines just can’t move them when zone blocking, even with combos, and the light but aggressive linebackers can quickly knife in while the OL are occupied with those combo blocks and get TFLs.
But every other type of run play is very successful, either power blocking to pin them aside, cutbacks or press and bounce runs to misdirect and exploit that aggression, or just running outside to avoid them. This disparity was crystal clear even in a single game against UW, which rushed so rarely I could put all of them in a single video that gathered the level of insightful responses typical to fans on twitter. It’s also the case that the depth situation behind the starters on the interior is problematic (though Hod told me they may be getting backup #96 DT Cooper back from injury this week) and so offenses can also just exhaust them later in the game or run against the backups when they rotate in. If this sounds familiar to Oregon fans, it’s because Texas Tech presented a very similar profile in its rush defense.
Here’s a representative sample of successful rush defenses over the last four games:
- :00 – Some of the very stable geniuses north of the Columbia tried to convince me ASU was run blitzing, and it wasn’t just the guards getting beat up by DTs.
- :06 – It’s really impressive just how immoveable Fite is as a true freshman, he’s not moving an inch with two linemen on him and the back running into him.
- :22 – I hope this pattern is clear enough because I watched it over 40 times this year. #0 + #99 on an inside zone run = giant pile of bodies that goes nowhere.
- :32 – Okay one more. I included this one because it’s so clear that it’s just the DTs – the C is up to one LB and the TE has the other, and the OTs are out to the DEs. The entirety of the run stop is that Fite and Mallory are each one on one with a guard and are beating him bad on 4th & short for the turnover on downs. Kelly could have called literally anything besides this to keep the drive going.
And unsuccessful rush defenses:
- :00 – UW probably should have called this counter more than twice since it got 10+ yards every time. The reason is obvious – it goes around the DTs and bowls over the backers, with the DE failing to set the edge because of how aggressive they are. Those linemen are pulling around pretty aerobically for dudes I’ve been assured were sick as dogs from the flu.
- :14 – Washing down the line also works great, getting moving them laterally as with this split flow that iso’s the nickel in the hole.
- :25 – Here’s the drawback to pulling the DT to put a third DE on the line – the offense can call the bluff and run on 3rd down, with Green getting controlled far more easily by the OL than Fite would have been. This is one of three 10+ yard rushes on this drive alone by Utah.
- :39 – Now it’s the 4th quarter and they need to rotate at the line, and the depth guys just aren’t at the same level – Fite’s replacement is flailing helplessly as he’s shoved aside. Smith is something of a liability setting the edge in run containment so when the back bounces after pressing he’s lost.