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In ASU’s sloppy 31-16 win over USC on Saturday, junior running back Rachaad White’s monumental performance was the talk of Tempe. In rushing for 202 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries, White became one of only six Sun Devils to break 200 rushing yards against a conference opponent since joining the Pac-10/12 in 1978.
While his performance is noteworthy and was the storyline of the game, it also served as a distraction from a big concern. White has been forced to step up to help disguise the Sun Devils’ recent offensive struggles.
Those struggles are most evident in junior quarterback Jayden Daniels. Leading up to the game, all eyes gravitated to the Southern California native. Not only was he expected to play with a chip on his shoulder because of the last few weeks’ performances, but also because of his roots.
Instead, the Kansas City, running back was the spark plug for the Sun Devils offense. Leading by only one point midway through the fourth quarter, White had consecutive touchdowns for 40-plus yards to help ASU secure the win late.
“Rachaad — holy cow. Had a huge game. You could tell that he had a chip on his shoulder and we all did. Monday all the way through with practices,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said.
In addition to 202 yards on the ground, White had two receptions for 35 yards. Overall, his 237 all-purpose yards accounted for more than half of ASU’s total yardage on the night. Because of stand-out performances like White’s, the Sun Devils have been able to evade a loss on more than one occasion this season.
Where are things going wrong for Arizona State? There’s a few places.
Daniels’ draft stock deteriorating
In the past 10 quarters of play, Daniels has one touchdown pass and four interceptions. He’ hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in five of his nine games this season. Against USC, Daniels completed 11 of 20 attempts for 145 yards.
“I think, just looking at it from the sidelines, more of it had to do with balance and just being comfortable and just being accurate,” Hill said. “He missed a few throws — one went high over the middle and got picked off and one was a little behind. I think it was to Pearsall. We ended up just missing on a few things.”
Taking a deeper dive into Daniels’ stats this year, especially compared to those from his freshman and sophomore seasons, the picture is not good.
As a true freshman in 2019, Daniels started in all but one game. He completed 205 of his 338 pass attempts for 2,943 yards, 17 touchdowns and two interceptions. In 2020, the Sun Devils played four games due to COVID-19. Daniels completed 49 of 84 pass attempts for 701 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
Because of COVID-19 conundrum, it was hard to gauge Daniels’ progress leading into the 2021 season, but one positive for the Sun Devils was the number of veteran starters returning. Expectations were high for Daniels, but he has yet to reach the potential seen from him previously.
Nine games into the season, Daniels has hit 150 of his 223 targets for 1,734 yards with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions; more than double the number of picks he had in his first 16 games combined. He also has four fumbles this season.
Daniels isn’t the only one playing hot potato with the rock. Turnovers have been an issue for both the offense and special teams.
Turnovers take a toll
One of the biggest issues for Arizona State’s offense collectively is ball security. In addition to Daniels’ seven interceptions this season, ASU has 13 fumbles, 10 of them lost. Against USC, the drop was by redshirt freshman Deamonte “Chip” Trayanum. While it was the first of his career, it added to a recurring problem this season.
“You’re not going to survive that, no matter who you play. No matter how good you think you are, you’re not going to survive that,” Edwards said.
The Trojans capitalized on the turnover, marching down the field for a touchdown.
In the lone day media viewing this week at practice, there was a clear emphasis on ball security. While practice is only open for the first 20 minutes, the offense was focusing on drills using padded lacrosse sticks to try punching the ball out.
Leading up to back-to-back road games in the Pacific Northwest in November, this could wind up being a major issue. First up, the Sun Devils travel to Washington where there’s rain in the forecast for the game. After eight games, the Huskies led the FBS for fewest passing yards allowed, meaning ASU will likely hammer the run despite the weather conditions. How will the damp, cool weather impact the Sun Devils’ ability to keep a handle on the ball?
After Washington, Arizona State heads to Corvallis for yet another late-season matchup against Oregon State. Facing the Beavers on the road late in the season is arguably one of the biggest challenges for Arizona State the entire season. Historically, ASU hasn’t done well this late in the season when it travels to Corvallis.
In the past decade, the Sun Devils have squared off with the Beavers eight times. If it seems like they’ve played them on the road a lot, it’s because they have. Five of the eight games have taken place in Corvallis.
Even further, four of them were in November, with 2020 taking place in December. For desert dwellers like the Devils, this can be an intimidating environment. While ASU has had success there, taking two of the last three, disaster could be lurking just around the corner if the ball security issues are not resolved.
Flags still flying
ASU has talked a lot about cutting back on penalties, but the Sun Devils can’t seem to help themselves. In nearly every game, Arizona State has found itself trying to climb out of a hole created by flags, and Saturday against USC was no different.
A pass interference call against Evan Fields at the start of the second quarter set off a chain reaction. Shortly after, Jordan Clark was called for defensive holding, allowing the Trojans to keep rolling and capitalize with a field goal. Both of those penalties came at significant points; Fields’ on a second-and-15 and Clark’s on a third-and-8.
On the Trojans’ following possession, Clark was called for a facemask on a third-and-6. Not only did it give USC a fresh set of downs, it also reversed a hard-fought interception by Chase Lucas. This time, the Trojans were able to punch it in with ease on a wide-open route from nine yards out.
In the third quarter, ASU was seemingly on the verge of yet another collapse. Following another turnover, the Sun Devils had two preventable penalties in three plays. The first was a neutral-zone infraction, and the second was holding. Those 15 yards put the Trojans within field goal range, where Parker Lewis drilled one from 51 yards out.
A win’s a win, but it wasn’t pretty
While Edwards touched on the sloppiness and need for improvement, he also highlighted the mental fortitude of the team. Perhaps one of the brightest spots of the night besides White’s performance was the team’s ability to regroup to finish out the game.
“I think the message that we tried to send them, and the message I sent them all week, was about dealing with adversity,” Edwards said. “When it arrives at your doorstep, how do you look at it?”
Hill echoed a similar sentiment, noting that ASU converted on a few different third down opportunities to keep things alive.
“Boy, that’s what we were preaching the whole way out,” Hill said. “We knew we had to finish it. We knew we had to pound them and be physical up front.”
“I walked over there, I looked up at the clock and I said, ‘Let’s do this now,'” Edwards added.
The Devils will need to be disciplined and focused for the next 14 days with two big games on tap. Following the first game of the season, Edwards mentioned that it’s easier to make improvements after a win than after a loss. Maybe the win over the Trojans will offer that opportunity.
“We needed this one,” Hill said. “We wanted to see how they would respond after these two losses. We saw it in practice and we wanted to see how it was going to translate into the game. If they could execute the way we needed to execute and the urgency was there and the focus was there.”