In faceoff of flaws, Texas A&M has fewer exposed

There could be choppy waters ahead for ASU football if it doesn’t patch the holes Texas A&M exposed on Saturday

HOUSTON — Generally in press conferences, there’s rarely anything of substance said. This is especially true in those of the post game variety. And especially, especially true when the losing team’s players and coaches are at the podium.

That’s why, as journalists, we’re taught to look for the non-verbal cues. The ones that show the true human emotion and reactions that hide behind the press-trained, cliched responses to our inquiries.

If there’s any proof needed of this, just take what coach Todd Graham said the day before: this is the best offensive line he’s had at ASU. Texas A&M’s nine sacks and constant pressure are chuckling all the way to the bank.

So that’s why when redshirt seniors, team leaders and captains, Jordan Simone and Mike Bercovici, were pulled off stage with hands from the press corps still raised, I tweeted this:

And that’s also why when Graham — after succumbing to our media needs for a strenuous five-plus minutes — gave a deep sigh as he arose from behind the microphone, my reporting counterpart Matt Tonis tweeted this:

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist — let alone a journalist — to know the mood was somber within the walls of ASU’s locker room. Meanwhile, as Bercovici, Simone and Graham prepared to face the media, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was still on the field.

He stood on a podium near mid-field and accepted the trophy for winning the Advocare Texas Kickoff. Shortly before, the entire Aggie team linked arms in their end zone and faced the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band in the stands and swayed back and forth to the tune of victory.

All this came on the back of a 38-17 whooping-by-scoreboard-only that, seemingly according to the majority of fans in the stands (who were chanting “S-E-C”), asserted the SEC’s dominance over not just the Pac-12 but the rest of the college football landscape.

Of course, for anyone who watched the game, there was not a 21-point difference in talent on the field. After failing to get in the end zone down 24-14 midway through the fourth quarter, ASU went into desperation mode — necessary but rarely effective — and allowed A&M an extra 14 points as the cherry on top of its victory sundae.

Although the game was closer than the score, anybody would be hard-pressed to say the play on the field bodes well for the rest of the season. After a handful of prominent national analysts picking ASU as their surprise pick for the College Football Playoff, excitement was through the roof. It’s all but guaranteed those crystal ball readings will prove inaccurate.

Not only will it be nearly impossible for ASU to come out of the Pac-12 South unscathed — no team has since the additions of Utah and Colorado — this team just has too many holes. If forced to choose a coach who can help his team fill those holes, Graham would be among the top of my list.

But what was most problematic wasn’t just the issues that many predicted (and some chose to ignore), it was that additional roadblocks seemed to be unearthed as the game progressed.

Sure, we all knew the Sun Devils had two first-time starters on the outsides of their offensive line. They performed about as expected against Texas A&M’s vicious defensive ends. Nobody forgot Jaelen Strong plays at NRG Stadium on Sundays now, not Saturdays. And, despite the addition of former NFL assistant coach Shawn Slocum to lead the special teams, those ever-present problems from last season reared their ugly head again in Houston.

While those alone may have cost ASU the game, there’s more to worry about. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell seemed to think he was still calling plays for Taylor Kelly behind center (rather than on the sidelines, in his first game as a graduate assistant). The Sun Devils didn’t even attempt to stretch the field until midway through the second quarter. Rather, the offensive playbook was rife with screens and a less-than-dominant rushing attack. When Norvell did order up a deep ball, the overpowered offensive line meant it was destined to become a dump-off.

And when the sporadic bomb-turned-dump did arise, Bercovici looked more like Kelly’s backup than the one who filled in so brilliantly last season. Mixed in with occasional bright spot — Bercovici’s decision to pull the ball down and run 19 yards for a score, starting the game 13-of-18 (though only for 59 yards) — were the far more obvious flaws. Pressure forced him into missing receivers down field, and he too-often didn’t have the touch on his short throws, giving his receivers too much heat to handle (likely the cause of the plethora of drops).

For the Sun Devils to live up to the wild expectations of themselves, their coach and many in the media, Bercovici has to be the player who threw for 998 yards against USC and UCLA, not the one who logged a total of 21 pass attempts prior to that. And that’s not solely dependent on him. Despite him refusing to talk bad about his offensive line after Saturday’s loss, they’re equally responsible for the offensive struggles.

Cap it off with 118 kick and punt return yards allowed on four Christian Kirk returns, including one for a touchdown, a roughing-the-punter penalty and Gump Hayes’ hesitancy on his returns, and that’s a recipe for a 21-point loss. Thankfully, A&M’s poor quarterback play spared ASU some embarrassment. If A&M had a quarterback the caliber of the Pac-12’s Jared Goff, Cody Kessler, Vernon Adams or Anu Solomon, the 21-point margin would have been indicative of the play on the field.

But instead, this hyped season-opening matchup was a spar between two teams who had flaws. And it was the one whose were less exposed that came out on top.


Reach the reporter ewebeck@asu.edu or follow him @EvanWebeck

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