Early growing pains: ASU football reflects on noticeable flaws during first two games

Facing adversity head-on, ASU football looks to turn lessons from Saturday’s first early-season loss into opportunities for growth entering Saturday’s game against Fresno State. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

TEMPE – Every new era of a college football program comes with early growing pains … well maybe outside of Boulder, Colorado. Kenny Dillingham’s first two games leading Arizona State are no different. While there have been positives in games against Southern Utah and Oklahoma State to start the season 1-1, the growing pains showed.

After a 27-15 home loss to OSU, the glaring issues that need to be addressed going forward are apparent, starting with true freshman quarterback Jaden Rashada.

The Sun Devils also have an injury-depleted offensive line which needs to find its footing and an offensive attack as a whole that needs to improve after ASU scored only three points total after halftime in its first two games combined. While these aren’t the only three issues ASU has, they’re issues that need to be fixed going forward.

“You live, you learn, and you get better,” Dillingham said. “It doesn’t matter what it is, we should always look at what we can do individually to fix the problem. That’s really the challenge for us.”

Jaden Rashada

When Dillingham announced Rashada was going to start week one, it was clear that he was not going to be a finished product, despite his high-level talent.

Through Rashada’s first two starts, he has 403 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. While he’s completed 56.7% of his passes, he has only rushed for five net yards this season. He’s shown flashes of his explosive play ability in both games, connecting on a 47-yard touchdown against Southern Utah and a 65-yard touchdown against OSU.

However, Rashada has struggled to maintain his play deep into ballgames. Of his 403 passing yards, only 115 have come in the second half of both games combined, with no touchdowns and an interception.

“I could have done a way better job,” Rashada said after the OSU loss. “The offense could have had the defense’s back more. There’s a lot of things I could have done better.”

Despite the inconsistency throughout the first two games, Dillingham has still loved what he’s seen from Rashada.

“Jaden has done a phenomenal job,” Dillingham said Monday. “The growth he’s made in those two games is incredible. I’ve been so pleased with how James played. His future is extremely bright.”

The vote of confidence from Dillingham is encouraging for Rashada’s play entering the matchup against Fresno State. Still, with transfer quarterback Drew Pyne back in practice this week, quarterback questions will continue to linger as Rashada develops.

Offensive line problems

In front of Rashada, the offensive line has a plethora of issues. Injuries have decimated the unit early in the season, including offensive tackle Emmit Bohle, who was ruled d as out for the year Monday with a lower leg injury that he suffered on ASU’s first offensive series of the game against the Cowboys.

Bohle joins the group of offensive linemen on the injured list, which includes five of the top eight players on the depth chart. Grad student Ben Coleman, junior Isaia Glass, redshirt junior Cade Briggs and grad student Aaron Frost are also injured, with Coleman out indefinitely and Glass and Briggs listed as questionable. Frost has not seen the field as he recovers from an ACL injury he sustained with UNLV last season.

“That’s obviously a challenge, and we have got to find ways to adapt and change what we do offensively to put our guys in the best situations to succeed again,” Dillingham said. “That may be a different-looking offense that I’ve done in the past just to utilize our players to the best of our ability.”

With the injuries, the unit has been the Achilles heel of the offense so far. Through the two games, they’ve allowed four sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and three quarterback hurries. Against OSU, the running back committee averaged 3.2 yards per carry on 34 carries in the game and 2.9 per carry in the second half, leading to the offense stalling in the third and fourth quarters.

“You need to have horses up front and be able to run the football and bring the (opposing) safeties down,” Dillingham said. “If you can’t run the ball at the highest level you would like, then you’re going to have to tweak and adapt different ways to be productive.”

Second half offensive struggles

The flaws in ASU’s offense have been most apparent in the second half of both games this season.

The Sun Devils scored only three points in the second half of both games. Against Oklahoma State, they only accumulated 105 total yards in the second half and only averaged 3.4 yards per play, and Rashada threw his first interception of the year.

“I preach the middle eight so much,” Dillingham said. “Sometimes when we don’t have the success coming out of halftime, the emotion behind it deflates, and we have to do a better job of responding when that deflation happens.”

The deflation comes from multiple points in each game. Against OSU, ASU turned the ball over on downs three times, forcing the defense to work in an unfavorable field position. Along with the play on the field, many fans began to filter out of the stands at the beginning of the second half in both contests, which could lead a team to struggle if the game doesn’t go its way.

“At the end of the day, you have to convert a third-and-one and a fourth-and-one, and if we convert that drive, the game is different,” Dillingham said. “That was a key factor of opening up that second half, and we can’t get as affected when we don’t have success to start the half.”

Overall, the Sun Devils already have enough problems early in the season with injuries, quarterback questions and late-game inconsistency. While growing pains like these were expected, coupling them with injury misfortune has led to a good mix of problems early in ASU’s 2023 campaign.

For Dillingham and his team, these problems are opportunities to improve, especially following a loss early in the season. The quarterback situation will continue to be questionable as Pyne gets healthy and the offensive line remains patched together, but that’s adversity the Sun Devils attack head-on.

“It’s not a loss; it’s a lesson,” said junior defensive lineman B.J. Green. “This is something that you have to build upon. He (Dillingham) has always been preaching, ‘How people respond to adversity?’ And that’s the challenge that we have for this week.”

Walker Smith(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Walker Smith expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism with a certificate in marketing. Smith has worked as an editor and reporter for The State Press and as a production assistant with Big Slate Media and Pac-12 Plus.