Buoyed by high expectations after back-to-back 10 win seasons, the ASU Sun Devils entered the 2015 season as a popular pick to win the Pac-12 South title, and even a pick by some to earn a bid to the College Football Playoffs. Furthermore, head coach Todd Graham proclaimed the 2015 Sun Devils squad as the best team he'd ever had in his 4 seasons at ASU.
Oh boy, did things not go as planned. They would start the season off on a sour note with a disappointing loss to Texas A&M. From there, they would endure an up-and-down season. They would get steamrolled by USC, then bounce back with a quality win over UCLA. They would fall to Utah, Oregon, and Washington State, then pick up wins Washington and Arizona before losing to our Golden Bears in spectacular fashion in an important season finale that would help determine the prestige of the bowl for each team. They would end up playing WVU in the Cactus Bowl, losing a heart-breaker that would leave them with a 6-7 record.
What do the numbers tell us about ASU? How good was Cal's win over ASU?
The offense was what kept ASU in the games. They would end up as the 24th ranked total offense in the FBS and the 32nd ranked scoring offense in the FBS by averaging 494.9 yards/game and 34.6 pts/game, respectively. They would utilize an extremely balanced offensive approach, passing the ball 534 times while rushing the ball 536 times.
Redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici would lead the 20th ranked passing offense, averaging 299.0 yards per game. However, they would do so behind a middling 12.15 yards/completion and a 59.9% completion rate for Bercovici. Yet Bercovici still managed to throw for 30 TDs through the air and protect the football fairly well, throwing only 9 interceptions on the season. Leading WR Devin Lucien, a graduate transfer from UCLA, would overcome a slow start to lead the WRs with 1075 yards and 8 touchdowns.
On the ground, the thunder and lightning duo of Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard provided most of the production for an average of 178.4 yards per game (59th in the FBS) and 4.33 yards per rush, and produce 19 rushing TDs. The weakness of the running game, one not too glaring at all, was that they combined to fumble 10 times on the season.
That the offense was able to put up those numbers behind an inconsistent offensive line was amazing. The offensive line, as experienced as it was, would still surrender 3.0 sacks/game (111th in the FBS) and 7.38 tackles for loss/game (115th). However, as noted, they were able to overcome the struggles to put up solid numbers both through the air and on the ground. Furthermore, the strong effort of the offense would continue in the red zone as they would score on 87.5% of trips into the red zone, though it must be noted that just 51.5% of those trips resulted in TDs.
Nevertheless, this was an offensive group that was, more often than not, able to get it done when needed. They will only return 5 starters on offense, losing many key members including all of the starters on the offensive line except for left tackle Evan Goodman. ASU also has to find a replacement for quarterback Mike Bercovici as well as 2 of their 3 leading WRs in Devin Lucien and DJ Foster.
It was noted that the ASU offense was oftentimes able to get it done when needed. Well, the same can't be said for the defense. In fact, almost the opposite could be said. They would end the season with the 112th ranked total defense, surrendering 463.8 yards per game, and the 99th ranked scoring defense, surrendering 33.5 points/game.
For all their struggles, the aggressive defensive approach that ASU employed did allow them success in stopping opponents on the ground. The Sun Devils would hold opposing rushing attacks to 125.9 yards/game and 3.64 yards per rushing attempt. Furthermore, they would lead the FBS with 3.54 sacks/game, and be among the leaders in the nation with 8.5 sacks/game. They would even register 3 safeties. While the front 7 performed quite well, the same cannot be said of the ASU secondary.
The Sun Devils secondary was unable to contain opposing offenses as they collectively struggled when asked to shut down opposing WRs one-on-one. They would allow 337.8 yards/game through the air (127th in the FBS), 14.94 yards/completion and a colossal 35 pass TDs on the year. On the bright side, they were able to force 15 interceptions on the season, helping to mitigate a little for their inability stop opposing teams through the air.
Though the 15 interceptions on the season is nothing to sneeze at, the 21 total turnovers forced on the season (the 15 interceptions and 6 fumbles recovered) pales in comparison to the 60 combined turnovers that they forced the previous 2 seasons. To further complicate matters, they would allow explosive plays on 19.2 percent of total defensive snaps (2nd worst in the country). The Sun Devils would surrender 88 plays of 20 or more yards (127th in the FBS) and 30 plays of 40-plus yards (last in the FBS). The defensive struggles would continue in the red zone as they allow opponents to score on a whopping 89.6% of trips into the red zone, while allowing touchdowns on 60.4% of trips.
The defense will return 8 starters in the 2016 season, providing them with a chance to improve on this past season. The bad news is that they must replace 3 starters in the secondary. While that may not seem like terrible given their poor play this past season, the fact is that their replacements will be even less seasoned. The good news is that they will return freshman All-American safety Kareem Orr. Furthermore, their front 7 will return largely intact with key players such as leading tacklers in 2015 linebackers Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam both returning.
Special teams was a solid group for the 2015 ASU team. They were among the league leaders in both team and individual statistics.
Junior kicker Zane Gonzalez would lead the way with a touchback percentage of 75%. That is good news because when the opposing teams did return kicks, they would allow a hefty 26.83 yards per return. Gonzalez would also convert on an okay 76.5% of his field goal attempts, and they would not allow any kicks to be blocked on the season.
Punter Matt Haack showed improved consistency this season as well, averaging 43.1 yards/punt. Furthermore, he would down 30 punts inside of the opponent's 20-yard line, which was good for fourth in the nation (this is prior to the bowl game against WVU). Their punt return defense would also allow a hefty 12.14 yards per return, but their net punting numbers are still good with 38.78 net yards per punt.
Their return teams would also put up solid numbers, blocking 2 kicks and 1 punt on the season. Furthermore, they would average a healthy 22.91 yards per kick return and 7.0 yards per punt return. Overall, this was a group that performed well for ASU, and we can expect much of the same next season as all of their key players will return including Gonzalez, Haack, and kick returner Tim White.
In a game in which Cal would trail by 17 at the half, we would see them come back to stun ASU with a field goal as time expired to steal the win. The Golden Bears would pick up their game on both sides of the ball after the half, exploding offensively and doing just enough to hold ASU to field goals. The result was an action-packed fourth quarter with 5 lead changes, and an ending that elated Cal fans around the world. Though it would have been nice if Cal game out of the gates firing on all cylinders, that was not the case. It was a fantastic win for Cal as they were able to overcome their early struggles to pull one out, showing us a lot about the growth of the team under head coach Sonny Dykes. It was exciting to see.
But what can we expect next season? We know that both teams will have a number of key players to replace. Cal with Jared Goff, the top 6 wide receivers, and Hardy Nickerson to name a few. ASU will have to replace QB Mike Bercovici, 4/5ths of their offensive line, their leading WRs, and 3/4 of their secondary.
Luckily enough for ASU, there seems to be a ready-made solution for each of the personnel issues that they will encounter. First off, their 2016 recruiting class includes 8 Junior College transfer, many of whom will provide an immediate impact for the Sun Devils including two four-star defensive ends, two four-star cornerbacks, two three-star offensive linemen, a three-star outside linebacker and a three-star punter. Furthermore, they can rely on their two-headed monster of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage to help take some pressure off the new starting QB and the offensive line as they learn to play with each other. And they hope that many of the wide receivers that have been with the program, namely Tim White and Cameron Smith can take the next step.
The secondary, an area of great concern for the Sun Devils, still remains somewhat of a question mark aside from rising sophomore Kareem Orr. But one thing is sure. It is a focus of the coaches at ASU as they have been rotating the safeties and cornerbacks throughout spring practice to make sure that they understand the intricacies of the scheme in relation to other members of the defense. What could help offset the learning curve is continued strong play from the front 7, with the additional growth of Jojo Whicker and the addition of Koron Crump, both of whom have been noted standouts in the spring for the Sun Devils.
Based off the Cal Spring practices and scrimmages, they have players ready to step up and replace last year's starters. Yet the same can be said of the ASU camp. As the first conference games for both teams in 2016, it will be an interesting test for both teams. I believe that we will see a competitive game, albeit one with mistakes on both sides as the teams integrate new players into the fold.