Embarrassing Loss to UCLA Raises Questions About ASU Football’s Offensive & Defensive Identities
By Peter Bouloukos,
October 29, 2019 4:13 PM

The Arizona State Sun Devils wrapped up the month of October with two straight embarrassing losses complete with plenty of questions now on both sides of the football. UCLA’s Jushua Kelley pounded the rock for 164 yards and 4-touchdowns as the Bruins pushed Arizona State around for three long quarters at the Rose Bowl Saturday Night. UCLA defeated the Sun Devils 42-32.  

The Devils have been knocked out of the polls and didn’t receive a single vote. 

The Bruins (3-5, 3-2 in the Pac-12) dominated from start to finish, carrying a 42-10 lead into the fourth quarter before the Sun Devils (5-3, 3-2) scored three late touchdowns with the game already out of reach. UCLA  has now rushed for more than 200 yards in four straight games, with Kelley going over the 100-yard mark in three of the last four contests. 

“I’m proud of how our guys played,” said UCLA Coach Chip Kelly.  “It’s still a really really young football team, but they’ve gotten better week by week, and we’ll continue to grow as a team.” 

That’s just it.  Other coaches are playing youth, but under offensive guru Chip Kelly, UCLA seems to be getting better as the season progresses. Across the nation, so are many other young teams, but Arizona State seems to have stalled.

The Sun Devils have the speed and talent present to be more competitive in these last two games, particularly UCLA. ASU held Jayden Daniel’s playbook back quite a bit against Sacramento and Kent State. They have begun to put more responsibility in his hands. In spots, he has definitely responded. 

If they were playing to win at Utah and UCLA, more in-game adjustments should have been made by Offensive Coordinator Rob Likens. With that being said, I am a huge proponent of empowering Daniels with much on-time responsibility. Here Rob Likens or a key member of his staff still need to provide the young quarterback with in-game analysis on the bench.  

Eno Benjamin only had 28 carries in two straight losses. The way Benjamin uncharacteristically flung the ball at the referee in the third quarter in the Rose Bowl not only cost ASU 15-yards and the likelihood of six points, but I think it reflected the frustration of some of the Sun Devil veterans throughout the game and perhaps at this juncture in the season.  

Was there an emotional carry-over from last week’s loss in Salt Lake?  “I don’t know that so much. The emotions of young people, they vary. That’s not an excuse. They just do. How they handle it, and how we handle it as coaches is important, too. Can we get them focused in on what they need to do? And we were not. We weren’t very focused early in this football game” said Head Coach Herm Edwards. 

Yes, the referees seemed to miss some big calls, but isn’t that part of the game?  Isn’t it how you respond as a team? For the second straight game, the Sun Devils allowed emotions to prevail over the positive mindset and outright passion Coach Herm emphasizes.

Edwards is too classy to suggest the referees made a few mistakes. The officiating cost Arizona State 12 points.

Regardless, something is wrong in Tempe my friends, and it may not just be youth.  Herm Edwards is now 12-9 at Arizona State, and the next four-games do not get any easier with USC, OSU, Oregon, and UA.  In two years Coach Edwards is 7-7 in the Pac-12, and he did not inherit a dumpster fire in 2018. With all of the potential and talent on this team, young or not, they seem to be losing their identity.  


Eno Benjamin is stopped by UCLA Defensive Back Elisha Guidry


Herm Edwards:  “There were fouls. One ball the guy caught, we thought he was out of bounds, but he was in bounds on 3rd and 14. We’ve got to clean that up. We had six penalties in the first half, three in the second half, and that’s too many. We usually average five a game, and if we can average that you’re playing pretty good, but we didn’t do that.”   

UCLA Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw for 176 yards and two touchdowns on an efficient 16-of-23 night before leaving the game early in the fourth quarter. Stephan Blaylock led the UCLA defense with 7 tackles and forced a rare Eno Benjamin fumble on Arizona State’s opening drive. This gave the Bruins the ball in Sun Devil territory, perhaps sparking the offensive onslaught to follow.

Jushua Kelley ripped off a 24-yard run to take the Bruins down to the five-yard line. Two plays later he punched it into the end zone from one yard out to give the Bruins a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.

“Obviously the game didn’t start out like we anticipated,” said Edwards. But Arizona State then capitalized on a turnover of its own to even the score with a 1-yard Jayden Daniels run. Then the Bruins went back in front with a methodical 16-play 81-yard touchdown drive as the first quarter wound down. 

Big plays on third and fourth down were significant in this game. Chase Cota pulled in an acrobatic 21-yard catch on third-and-long for UCLA, and Thompson-Robinson wove through the defense on a 20-yard scramble to convert another third down.

With UCLA facing a fourth-and-one at the Arizona State 22-yard line, Thompson-Robinson rolled right looking to pass then tucked the ball and beat the Sun Devil defense to the sticks picking up a fresh set of downs. Kelley finished the drive with three straight physical runs, the last one for a five-yard touchdown, putting the Bruins ahead 14-7. 

The Bruins were 7 of 14 on third-down conversions and 3 of 3 on fourth down. They ran the ball 57 times for 217 yards and dominated the time of possession, 38:30 to 21:30. In the past two games, Danny Gonzales’s defense has been on the field for 73 minutes and 43 seconds.


Bruin RB Jushua Kelley was a problem for the Sun Devils all day


With the game out of reach, Arizona State scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to make the final score 42-32. “We just didn’t play our game. First half, you just see we weren’t ourselves,” said Jayden Daniels who accounted for all four Sun Devil touchdowns. “As an offense, we were just out of character. That wasn’t our offense.” 

Daniels was 20-29 for 271 yards and three fourth-quarter touchdowns. He also rushed for 67 yards. Statistically, Daniels did what he was supposed to do, but again ASU needed to get the ball in Eno Benjamin’s hands more. 

Benjamin entered the game 4th in the Pac-12 in rushing average but was held to 46 yards on 13 carries. Frank Darby had a fine day with six receptions for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Brandon Aiyuk found his way to 6 receptions for 82 yards while adding another 82 yards on three kick returns. Danny Gonzales’ crew had 3 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, and one quarterback hurry. In all, Arizona State had 74 tackles of which 66 were solo.

66 Solo tackles? 

Are the Sun Devils the best one-on-one tacklers in football? Not exactly. As a general rule, solo tackles occur most frequently from the passing game or from bad rushing attacks which put the running back in positions where he can’t evade a single tackler and is brought down before he can get up to speed. 

If there are more defenders in place for a running play, it’s going to be easier for the defense to get multiple people to the ball carrier.  On Saturday, when we knew what the play call was going to be, Danny Gonzales’ defense was not aligned to contain the run. And on passing plays, there were gaping holes for Thompson-Robinson to run. 

Daniel Lawver was a Ph.D. student in Economics at Arizona State University in 2011. His statistical analysis dictated that the performance of an offense affects the performance of the defense over the course of a game or over the course of a season for that matter. 


ASU QB Jayden Daniels


We have now witnessed this in two bad losses for the Arizona State Sun Devils. Rob Likens’ play-calling resulted in just 13-total-points in seven consecutive quarters of Pac-12 football. What emotional and physical toll might that take on a Defense?  

When the Bruins wanted to move downhill, UCLA’s Joshua Kelley seemed to run straight through ASU’s defensive front. Herm Edwards:  “We missed some gaps (an understatement). This is different because we had 80 plays last year, and they had 80 this year. It’s an almost complete reversal. We ran the ball for 280 yards last year, it’s a complete reversal. We ran the ball at times, but we got so far behind that we had to throw it.” 

The truth is the offense abandoned the run before ASU was “far behind.” Last year against the Bruins Eno Benjamin had 34 attempts out of the backfield for 182 yards and one touchdown. Manny Wilkins ran the ball 14 times for 60 yards, similar numbers to Jayden Daniels in this year’s UCLA game. And despite the score, Daniels and Wilkins had similar success passing, both at 9 yards per completion.  


So what’s wrong?

Herm Edwards’ “80 play” quandary really mattered. The number of plays an offense runs per drive directly affects the number of plays for the opposing offense. Fewer opportunities often lead to fewer points on the scoreboard. 

Arizona State’s defense looked unprepared for a Chip Kelly Offense. It was no secret the Bruins were going to run the ball on Saturday.  It was also no mystery who was going to be carrying the ball for UCLA. It was no secret the Bruins would rotate fresh backs to sustain long drives predicated by the run. 

A team with a less than efficient offense will find itself frequently trailing as Arizona State has many times this season. When opposing teams are up, what are they typically wired to do? Pound that rock. Well, the Bruins proceeded to run the ball 57 times for 218 yards on only 3.8 yards per carry.


UCLA RB Jushua Kelley had 164 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Sun Devils


No Offensive Identity for the Sun Devils

When a young Jayden Daniels reveals “we were out of character,” and “that just wasn’t our offense,” his observations are absolutely on track. Ultimately Rob Likens’ play-calling was all over the map. It’s as if he is not preparing for the defense of the opposing staff. He’s playing Madden 2019 instead of the Utah Utes or the UCLA Bruins.

Rob Likens is both the Offensive Coordinator and the Quarterback’s Coach. Perhaps it is time for Herm Edwards to bring in someone who can help Likens better-manage his time. Right now, that is not Graduate Assistant Mike Bercovici as much as I appreciate his fire.  

In business, we focus on being productive instead of busy. Being able to quit things that don’t work is integral to being a winner. Coaches have to make quick adjustments while measuring energy and team morale. 

We really don’t know who we are on offense. Losers have goals. Winners have systems to drive successful outcomes. Only 28 FBS teams are more inept at scoring the ball than ASU, yet Arizona State has speed, skill, and talent.  

Stick with me here.  Likens has a team of young quarterbacks needing his help with technique, game management, mechanics, movement analysis and classroom sessions watching opposing defenses. At the same time, he needs to be studying opposing defenses, analyzing numbers and coming up with a consistent, methodical plan of attack. It’s two jobs, not one.  

Untimely penalties and a struggle to get off the field on third and fourth down has crushed this young Sun Devil team as of late. ASU finished Saturday with nine penalties for 67 yards, several of which resulted in first downs for the Bruins. Simply stated, the story of this campaign has been the offense not carrying its weight in pesos.  

UCLA really grabbed the game’s momentum on the final drive of the first half and the first drive of the second, not as early as Herm Edwards suggested in the post-game presser. 

With ASU trailing 21-7, UCLA forced a turnover on downs to get the ball back with 1:03 left in the first half. The Bruins wasted no time getting down the field and hitting pay-dirt to make it a three-score game, 28-7 at halftime. 

UCLA went full-throttle to start the second half with another touchdown-scoring drive. That made the game 35-7, a 4-touchdown differential that effectively put a victory out of reach for the Sun Devils.  


Food to Fork Em’ with:

  • 👉 Against UCLA in 2018 Eno Benjamin had 34-carries for 182 yards and a touchdown.  
  • 👉 Against UTAH in 2018 EB3 had 27-carries for 175 yards and two touchdowns.
  • 👉 In those two Arizona State victories, Benjamin had 61 carries for 357 yards and three touchdowns.  
  • 👉 This year Eno had 28 carries for 150 yards and no touchdowns combined against UTAH and UCLA.  Both resulted in embarrassing losses for the nationally-ranked Sun Devils.   
  • 👉 This season Arizona State is 3-1 when Eno Benjamin carries the ball 20 or more times.  That loss came Saturday when he had 20 carries for 83 yards (4.2-yard average).  
  • 👉 In 2019 the Sun Devils are 1-2 when EB3 touches the ball under 20 times. That win came on 19 rushes for 137 yards against Washington State.  

Arizona State is out of contention for the Pac-12 South. They are now playing for pride and a decent Bowl Game. This staff has a lot to recalibrate in the next two weeks with this week being a Bye. The Sun Devils return to action against USC on Saturday, November 9th, 1:30 pm MST at Sun Devil Stadium. The game will air on either ABC or ESPN.


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