COLUMN: Bye Week Gives ASU Much Needed Time to Improve

By Michael Baron // Football Reporter for Blaze Sports

Tempe, AZ            The Sun Devils (2-3, 1-1) have a much-needed break this week. After falling on the road 34-24 to the Stanford Cardinal, and surrendering 301 yards on the ground to junior running back Bryce Love, ASU has an additional week for R&R and is beginning preparations its toughest stretch of 2017.

Caution: Rugged Terrain Ahead

The off-week could not have come at a more critical juncture. When ASU football takes the field again the competition is shaping up to be the most intense of the year.

Over the next three weeks, beginning next Saturday night, the Sun Devils will see three straight ranked opponents. All of them from the Pac-12 Conference: No. 6 Washington, at No. 20 Utah and back in Tempe versus No. 14 USC.

During this stretch ASU will see two quarterbacks where the word “Heisman” has been mentioned before. Southern Cal’s Sam Darnold was considered by many to be the frontrunner at the beginning of the 2017 season, and Washington’s Jake Browning was in the race for the Heisman last season as a sophomore.

If ASU fails to win during this stretch its record will fall to 2-6. This means the Devils would essentially have to win out in the hopes of playing beyond Nov. 25.

The Very Good

Photo: John Mendoza // Blaze Sports

Manny. Wilkins.

You probably saw this one coming from a mile away, but the redshirt junior quarterback has taken yet another leap forward. As a leader of this football team, Wilkins has been efficient with the football so far this year with his eight touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Wilkins has thrown the ball for 1,452 yards and is completing 65.9 percent of his passes. He also holds a QBR of 153.9, well above his 133.2 from 2016.

However, as stated earlier, the biggest challenges are yet to come, in particular for Wilkins.

The Sun Devils will first face the Pac-12’s top defense when the Huskies come to Tempe on Oct. 14. Washington is eighth in all of Division I football in total defense, surrendering an average of 256 yards per game with 12 takeaways.

Then Wilkins and Co. travel north to Salt Lake City to face the Utah Utes, currently boasting the 17th best total defense in the country. The Utes are also third in the nation in turnovers gained (14).

Still, Wilkins’s efficiency with the football and the passing game could be a bright spot for the Sun Devils as they march into a trying month.

The Noticeable Improvement

The running game:

Had the bye been after week three, I might not have put ASU’s rushing attack under this category. However, in the last three games, the Sun Devils have rushed for 168, 142 and 214 yards, respectively.

A healthy senior running back Demario Richard has certainly taken some of the pressure off Wilkins. The running game primarily relied on fellow senior tailback Kalen Ballage for the first two games before Richards return.

With more of the Pac-12’s toughest still to come on the schedule, the rushing attack led by the seniors will need to continue to put up the numbers seen these last three weeks and possibly then some.

What needs to be fixed?

Offensive Line

Despite Wilkins success, he has taken many hits and several of those have come from behind the line of scrimmage. One of the most glaring weaknesses of 2017 Sun Devil football has been the offensive line. Through five games, the O-line has given up 22 sacks, third worst in all of Division I football.

In addition, ASU’s rushing attack, led by Richard and Ballage, ranks 92nd in the nation. The Sun Devils are averaging 129.4 yards per game.

A lot of the offense relies on Wilkins’s ability to throw the ball and create positive plays, but if the Devils are to win in October, they must get more protection from the O-line to open up a more dynamic play action-style attack.

Defense

Photo: John Mendoza // Blaze Sports

Prior to Oct. 14, when the Sun Devils return to action versus Washington, the defense could use a tune up.

In the road game at Stanford, the Sun Devils could not stop Cardinal running back Bryce Love. Love ran for 301 yards on the ground, breaking a school record for most rushing yards in a single game.

Entering the bye weekend, ASU’s total defense is 118th in the country, surrendering an average of 484.2 yards per contest.

The pass defense’s numbers are not any better. ASU is ranked 120th in D-I, and is giving up an average of 293.6 yards per game and 14 passing touchdowns. Rushing defense statistics are slightly better. The Sun Devils come in at 96th in FBS with an average of 190.6 yards given up per game on the ground.

ASU returns to action Saturday, Oct. 14 when the No. 6 Washington Huskies come to the desert. Kickoff from Sun Devil Stadium is slated for 7:45 p.m. Chris Roth and Chris Cadeau will have the call for Blaze Radio, and you can listen to them live at blazeradioonline.com

Michael Baron is a football reporter for Blaze Sports. You can reach him at michael.baron@asu.edu or follow Michael on Twitter @Michael_Baron96 

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