The promise of “Thunder and Lightning” has turned into a drizzle lately as the Arizona State football team struggles to get its running game back on track.
Back in August, The Arizona Republic referred to ASU’s running backs, Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, as “Thunder and Lightning”, nicknames that seemed to fit at the time. The pair brought pounding power and open-field speed to the offense.
Kinda like “Butch Cassidy” and the “Sundance Kid,” the monikers hung on Jim Kiick (Butch) and Larry Czonka (Sundance), the powerful backfield tandem that led the Miami Dolphins to a perfect season, 17 straight wins, in the mid-70’s. The two became local heroes and earned a cult following across the country.
But the way things are going, the inspiring nicknames meant to provide some hope to the Sun Devil fan base after a disappointing 6-7 season are becoming a fading memory.
That has to change in time for tonight’s game with Washington State (4-2).
A rushing offense that was averaging almost 250 yards a game and ranked 25th in the nation after the first four games of the season has fallen to No. 78 on the list. The Sun Devil backfield has averaged just 68 yards rushing over the last three games, a three-point win over UCLA and double-digit losses to USC and Colorado.
This was the season that had the potential to produce a pair of 1,000-yard running backs. But neither Richard or Ballage are on track to accomplish that. They have carried the rushing load, combining for 190 carries in the seven games so far, but Richard has just 495 net yards and Ballage 324. Ballage is picking up 4.8 yards per carry and Richard is averaging 4.1.
By comparison, Richard ran for 1,098 yards last season and Ballage finished 2015 with 653, but missed three games during a bout of mononucleosis.
It has been 43 years since Ben Malone and Woody Green each ran for more than 1,000 yards in the same season, and it looks unlikely it will happen again this year.
But if the ASU offensive line, which hasn’t been playing well lately, can return to the form it showed earlier in the season, maybe the Sun Devils can resurrect the running game tonight. It will probably take more than the 164 yards on the ground that ASU (5-2) has been averaging the last three games to beat the Cougars.
Without a successful ground game, it’s also hard to get the passing threat up to speed. The loss to Colorado is a good example of what can happen without solid pass protection by the offensive line. ASU’s sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins was sacked five times and the Devils found themselves trying to climb out of a 30-13 hole early in the second half. Wilkins managed just 13 completions for 149 yards and was intercepted once.
Adding to the problem, the Cougars’ defensive relies heavily on its ability to get to the quarterback, something they do well.
And adding to the drama, this game comes just six days after WSU head coach Mike Leach accused the Sun Devils of stealing signs during the game – a charge that drew a quick denial from ASU and a reprimand from the Pac-12 Conference.
That statement at a Monday press conference cost Leach a $10,000 fine from the Pac-12.
Leach will still be smarting from the financial loss when tonight’s game gets underway at Sun Devil Stadium, and ASU will likewise have good reason to exact revenge for the insult.
So the stage has been set for an interesting homecoming game.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)