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Zak Hill's offensive play book comes to life under Rose Bowl lights

Shane Dieffenbach Avatar
October 3, 2021

Sun Devil nation got a taste of what they’ve so desperately been waiting for offensively this season in ASU’s 42-23 route over UCLA. Like a new Hollywood movie premiere, the magical book of Zak Hill’s offense was finally brought to life, propelling the Sun Devils to a victory. It took ASU some time to get things firing on all cylinders, but once they were heated up they couldn’t be stopped.

It was a vast difference in the performances the Sun Devils had prior to Saturday. Leading into the game, there were a lot of things holding back ASU from executing on the offense, preventing the Sun Devils from reaching their true potential.

In the first few games of the season, quarterback Jayden Daniels was struggling to find his rhythm. Daniels didn’t look like his usual self, often appearing rushed inside the pocket and deciding to take off on foot, despite having enough time to wait it out a little longer to try to find a receiver. 

He also was struggling with more turnovers than he was used to to start the season off.

It wasn’t really until the game against Colorado he finally started to look like the JD5 fans grew to know and love. 

The receivers, many of whom are slightly inexperienced due to their youth, were also struggling to figure out who was going to step up as the leader. Through the first three games,  nobody really stepped up to define themselves as the go-to guy for Daniels.

Of the three running backs, two of them were banged up following the second game of the season, and the offensive line had some issues with communication early on. 

Package all of the offensive struggles up and pair it with the turnovers and the penalties they’d been struggling with and it made for one uncertain situation walking into the Rose Bowl. 

Herm Edwards spoke earlier in the week about how the team was working to stay focused when they went to Pasadena this year, as it can be an easy place for the players to get caught up in their surroundings. There were some questions around how well the Devils would play in Saturday night’s game, where Arizona State would go on to make a statement with the win. The Sun Devils tuned out all distractions and outside noise to play arguably their best game of the season.

Arizona State’s offense was aggressive in the first half, taking a couple big chances with the deep ball on first down that paid off for them. In both cases, it was the hometown kid Ricky  Pearsall who stepped up for the Sun Devils to reel the ball in and take it all the way to score. Hill gave credit to the offense for their execution in the game, saying the guys have been buckled down at practice. 

Pearsall’s performance Saturday was a defining moment for the offense in rest of the season going forward. Since the start of the shortened season, Arizona State has been waiting to see who will step up to be the “go-to” guy. In the Sun Devils’ 70-7 victory over UofA, Persall had a good showing, but it was just the start for him.

Since then, Pearsall has slowly but surely become more instrumental in the Sun Devils offensive game plan from week to week, and his performance against a solid UCLA defense shows he has the ability to get the job done when his team depends on him. His two touchdowns, for 65 and 54 yards respectively, helped put ASU on top 24-23 at half. 

“He did great. Ricky did awesome. He’s one of those guys that comes out every day and he’s consistent. He works his butt off, he’s a great leader, he’s an energetic guy, he’s a great spark for our team and to see him come out here and do what he does best, it’s fun to watch,” Hill said.

Ironically, Pearsall was not thinking he’d see the field as much as he did early on in the week. Following the game, Hill told the media he was forced to make some personnel changes late in the week following an undisclosed injury to Johnny Wilson, allowing Pearsall to get more action in the game. 

“We had to re-personnel everything late in the week and that whole group of wide receivers, they’re hungry, they’re excited and this gave some other guys some opportunities. When one guy goes down, the group stepped up and made some big plays,” Hill said.

Of the Sun Devils’ 274 total offensive yards in the first half, 217 of them came on first down plays. On first down passes, Daniels was five for seven in the first half for 190 yards and two touchdown passes, compared to being three for four for only 20 yards on other passing plays. 

Geordon Porter also stepped up big time with a 47-yard reception to set the Sun Devils up for their first touchdown of the night in the second quarter.

It wasn’t just an aggressive night for the pass, but also for the run. With all three starters back at full strength, Hill said their ability to make the momentum-changing plays allowed them to mix things up.

“I thought our guys executed the game plan well. I’ve seen some games where you feel like you got a great game plan but then you don’t hit a few big shots or you just miss and Jayden (Daniels) was able to connect on some big ones that you hope to hit as a coach,” Hill said.

The plan of attack opened up the run for Rachaad White, who started the second half with a 49-yard touchdown run to extend ASU’s lead. It’s how the Sun Devils were able to put up 172 rushing yards on UCLA’s defense, which was ranked among the top-five run defenses in the country leading up to the game. 

“It was great having Chip (Trayanum) back. Having that one-two punch with Rachaad (White) and Chip and having Daniyel (Ngata), too, in the wings ready to go,” Hill said.

Another difference with how Hill called the offense came down to where he was calling the plays from. Previously, Hill was used to working from up in the booth, and said it’s only been since coming to Arizona State that he’s been calling plays from the field. He said it was nice to be able to see everything again and he may return to the booth for the games going forward. 

Although ASU might have opened up with a win last week against Colorado, the win against UCLA helps set the tone for the rest of the season moving forward. Not only is it a quality win against a conference opponent, it also came on the road and was by a margin of more than seven points. 

The win marks the first 2-0 start to Pac-12 play in the Herm Edwards era, and places ASU in control of its own destiny in conference play. As of now, they’re the only team in the south with a 2-0 conference record, and have the top overall record right now at 4-1. 

Pac-12 football is kind of like cannibalism, where the entire conference just poaches each other, constantly throwing things into disarray. While Arizona State may be in the lead now, it’s going to take more improvements from week to week cleaning up more of the details and continued execution. A quick turnaround against Stanford at home will provide another good litmus test for the Sun Devils to see if they’re able to put the win behind them and stay focused on the long-term goal of returning to the Rose Bowl in January with a clean game and execution. 

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