ASU football flying blind into next game with California

Arizona State‘s football team is scheduled to play California on Saturday.  But the Sun Devils  will be flying blind going into that game at Sun Devil Stadium.

ASU wasn’t able to scout its next opponent since the Bears cancelled last Saturday’s game with Washington after a member of the Cal football team tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

But the Sun Devils will have the advantage of knowing what changes need to be made in their own game before they host the Bears.  Their season opener last Saturday against USC, played in LA, exposed the parts of their game that need some work.

Fortunately, it will require more fine-tuning than wholesale changes.  The Devils were good enough against USC to exchange leads throughout the game, until the Trojans came from behind in the final minutes to squeeze out a 28-27 win.

As expected, the quarterback play wasn’t one of the the problem areas.  Jayden Daniels picked up from where he left off after an impressive freshman season, when he became the first true freshman to start in a season opener.  He finished his freshman year with 2,943 passing yards and tied nationally for fewest interceptions with two.

Against USC he showed his dual-threat capabilities, throwing for 134 yards (11-for-23) with no interceptions and running for another 124, which made him the team’s top rusher.

Which brings us to an unresolved area of concern.  ASU doesn’t appear to have a go-to running back — yet.

Finding a replacement for Eno Benjamin, who was the workhorse in the backfield the last two seasons, is still a work in progress.  Benjamin, who accounted for 84 percent of the carries during 2018 and 2019, left a year early for the NFL, but not before he had set a new school single-season rushing record of 1,642 yards.

The ground offense was more of a group project against the Trojans, with newcomers Deamonte Trayanum and Rachaad White getting their audition in the backfield.  Trayanum, a true freshman. rushed for 84 net yards, and White, a junior JUCO transfer, picked up 76 yards.

ASU racked up 392 total yards, but that paled compared to the 556 piled up by USC.

A good chunk of the USC yardage came late in the fourth quarter.  The Devils’ defense was actually pretty stingy throughout most of the game, which saw five lead changes.

And the ASU special-teams unit resurrected one of last season’s favorite weapons, the ability to keep the Trojans from spending too much time with the ball.  The defense created four turnovers in the game.

It was a long four quarters for the ASU defense, with USC running 34 more plays than the Devils, thanks to a USC advantage  of almost 10 minutes in time of possession.  The result defensively was an edge in tackling, with ASU posting 104 tackles to 60 for USC.  But that extra effort took its toll as the game wore on.

The Trojans scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes, thanks to an onside kick that ASU was unable to handle, and a 21-yard TD pass play in the final 80 seconds.

ASU has new offensive and defensive coordinators this season, so this first game gave Zak Hill a chance to try out the new high-octane offensive system he brought with him from Boise State, and co-coordinators Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce were able to evaluate a defense that has been switched from a three-man front to the more conventional four down linemen.

Playing California will be similar to a season opener for ASU.  No current game film to review.

But the Bears know what they can expect: a strong challenge from an opponent that almost knocked off a ranked team that is expected to challenge for the Pac-12 title.

And the Sun Devils will have the added advantage of playing at home for this game.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)