As Arizona State enters the bye week under .500, there are many warranted negatives and concerns surrounding the Sun Devils, who likely won’t be favored to win a game for at least another month.
But if you’re into looking for silver linings, the improved running game is certainly a start. Offensive coordinator Billy Napier and coach Todd Graham have preached all fall that they’ve wanted to establish the run, but the Sun Devils hadn’t done so until recently.
Now, they’re starting to mirror offense they wanted to be, including establishing a running game that features the two-headed monster in the backfield.
“It’s gotten better every week, game by game, and that’s what we want it to do,” senior running back Kalen Ballage, one-half of that monster, said of the running game. “You’re not always going to have huge improvements, but we’ve been chopping the wood and going to work at it and it’s getting better every week.”
A team that strives to have an effective running game must first possess a physical offensive line capable of providing a push at the line of scrimmage. There were concerns about ASU’s line because the Sun Devils only ran for 79 yards in the season opener against New Mexico State, and followed that with just 44 rushing yards against San Diego State.
But slowly and surely, there has been improvement. ASU rushed for 168 yards at Texas Tech, 142 against Oregon and 214 at Stanford. Two of those three games were losses, but jumpstarting the running game has only helped ASU’s offense as it looks to put together complete performances.
“The O-line is more confident than they were when we first started,” said senior running back Demario Richard, the other half of the monster. “They’re starting to jell together like I said before, they really weren’t getting to jell now, they’re starting to get a lot more playing experience. Traveling on the road and not playing at home isn’t really getting to them anymore.”
Where has that confidence come from? Since the beginning of the season, ASU has tweaked its offensive line. It has tried sophomore Cohl Cabral — the opening-day left tackle — at center. He skidded a snap at Texas Tech, then senior A.J. McCollum was back at center the next week.
In practice, they’ve used different line combinations, leaving folks wondering which one they’ll use on Saturday. Sophomore Zach Robertson saw time at right tackle against San Diego State before playing left tackle at Texas Tech the next week. He then started at right tackle in favor of junior Quinn Bailey when the Sun Devils played at Stanford this past weekend.
How has ASU’s offensive line remained confident amidst such fluidity each week?
“I think that the confidence probably just comes from the work that we put in every day,” junior left guard Sam Jones said. “We can see it on film, every week we’re getting better with the fundamental technique. Obviously, everybody is playing hard, but it’s just playing hard with the technique, which takes it to another level and I think we’ve been doing that.”
Jones said having Richard and Ballage in the backfield is comforting because their play often makes the offensive line look good, too.
“I think just being physical and having the mentality up front and in the backfield that arm tackles and silly things like that aren’t going to get us on the ground,” Ballage said of he and Richard’s mindset.
Richard said the two senior backs, who have both acted as leaders this season, have helped the offensive line find itself in the past couple weeks.
“Me and Kalen, we’ve been confident since we came in,” he said. “Now we’re starting to pass the trait off to the O-line.”
Truth is, Richard and Ballage perhaps need the boys up front even more, and both admit the running game starts there. And because of the offensive line’s improvement, ASU has seemingly found an identity on the ground.
There were preseason debates focused on if Ballage and Richard could both eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. Through five games, Ballage has rushed for 286 and Richard for 193, so perhaps curb that talk.
But the important part may be that the Sun Devils have shown they can run the ball. They did so with physicality against Oregon and Stanford, a breath of fresh air for an offense looking to hit its stride at the time.
“It’s good just putting that on film,” Ballage said of the improvement in the running game. “When other teams see what we’re capable of, they know we’re a physical team, we’re not going to be a finesse team. We’re going to run the football downhill and just having the opportunity to have that on film I guess for other teams to look at is important.”
Being able to run the ball has also taken less pressure off ASU’s other offensive weapons. After ASU lost to San Diego State, Aztecs coach Rocky Long was asked how his team successfully defended ASU’s passing game down the stretch.
He offered this on ASU:
“They were going to air it out because they can’t run it.”
Long qualified that ASU runs a spread offense, which isn’t as conducive to running the football as the pro-style system his Aztecs use. However, it seems to have an effective ground game the past two weeks and has allowed ASU to further open its playbook.
During the game at Stanford, the Sun Devils successfully converted multiple third-and-medium to third-and-long situations on the ground. In two separate situations, sophomore receiver N’Keal Harry took a direct snap out of the Sparky formation and ran for a first down.
Harry also threw his first career touchdown pass out of the Sparky against the Cardinal. Richard ran for another score out of the formation. Ballage took direct snaps from it, too.
ASU has diversified what it runs out of the Sparky since the formation’s inception in the program’s playbook last season. But the Sun Devils keep defenses on their toes.
“I think a big part of it is we usually come out in a normal formation for the most part, then we shift to (the Sparky). So the defense has a specific call for a certain formation, then we shift to something completely different and it catches them off guard,” Ballage said.
The point of all this: None of the flare, flash or boldness in playcalling would work if the Sun Devils couldn’t establish a running game. Credit the guys up front for that. It appears they’ve shed a slow start and have steadily improved.
And through their progression, they’ve blocked out the noise. Jones, their leader, has helped them remain confident by preaching the same thing he does each week.
“We’ve won games before where everybody — the fans and the media — go, ‘You guys are great,’” Jones said. “Then you get back to the film room and it’s like, that was probably one of our worst games up front. Then we’ve lost games where I thought we’ve played pretty good up front. It’s never as good as you think it is, it’s never as bad as you think it is.”