TEMPE, Ariz. — The book appears to be out on Arizona State’s offense.
For the last two weeks, ASU has struggled to establish tempo and rhythm. That’s a product of good defenses but also of teams keying on top playmakers, including standout freshman running back D.J. Foster.
After getting just seven touches in ASU’s loss to Oregon State on Nov. 3, Foster had a season-low five touches in the team’s loss to USC last Saturday. Foster totaled 168 yards against UCLA on Oct. 27 but just 31 against Oregon State and 10 against USC. Compounding the issues is additional focus from opponents on running back Marion Grice.
“Towards the end of the season, (teams) see that we’re leading in catches and stuff, so they’re definitely catching on,” Foster said. “It gets frustrating but you just have to stay focused, and we’ve just got to find a way to get it done.”
As hard as it may be, Foster said he’s remaining patient amid the decreased production with the guidance of running backs coach Larry Porter.
“Coach Porter just stresses to me you’ve got to keep hitting the hole and then one long run will come or that one big catch,” Foster said. “You’ve just got to stay patient as a running back.”
Foster is the Sun Devils’ second-leading rusher, with 393 yards on the year. He’s also the second-leading receiver with 473 yards on 33 receptions. He has six touchdowns total, and with his rushing and receiving yards combined leads the team in all-purpose yards.
The focus on him and Grice, Foster said, can also create opportunities for other players in the offense. The problem there is ASU’s deficit at wide receiver.
With his two biggest playmakers contained and little to work with elsewhere, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell faces a greater challenge in getting the offense going. The offense averaged 38.4 points through the first eight games and 21.5 over the last two.
“I’ve got to do a better job finding ways to create those opportunities (for Foster and Grice),” Norvell said. “This offense is one where we’re trying to get guys matched up in great situations, regardless of what position it is.
“It’s a challenge to every group.”
With Grice and Foster neutralized, coach Todd Graham essentially challenged his receivers to step up and become big playmakers the final two weeks of the season. ASU had only four receptions from true wide receivers against USC.
“We’ve scored a lot of points, and obviously we didn’t do that the last couple games,” Graham said. “We’ve got to have some guys outside beat some one-on-one coverage and make some plays down the field.”
Redshirt sophomore Deantre Lewis and redshirt junior J.J. Holliday were back with the offense at practice Tuesday after both switched to defensive back earlier this season as ASU tried to add depth at the position.
Lewis, who had an impressive freshman season before missing all of last season with a leg injury, found himself buried on the running back depth chart and at first embraced the move to defense.
“It’s been very tough from a learning standpoint for him,” Graham said. “He kind of was excited about it for a couple weeks and then got kind of confused, kind of hit a wall, so we’re probably going to move him back.
“He helped us some in nickel and dime (packages), but he just wasn’t able to progress. It’s hard to learn a lot of stuff like that. … If he’s not going to play, we’d rather he be back over there and give us some depth at running back.”
Holliday started the season listed as a first-team wide receiver but fell out of the rotation quickly. He has just five catches for 14 yards. He, too, embraced the experiment to move to defense, which he played in high school.
“Obviously we were trying to create some depth, some how some way, and it very seldom works out,” Graham said. MORE TRADITION COMING
ASU announced Tuesday it will bring back the custom of ringing the Victory Bell, a tradition that dates back to the 1930s.
The Victory Bell, which began as a dinner call when ASU was the Arizona State Teachers College, was once used to call students and fans to the stadium before football games and after victories. The tradition ended in the 1950s when the bell was moved to a place of honor on campus before it disappeared amid remodeling in the 1970s.
The return of the Victory Bell is the latest return to an old tradition, following ASU’s return this year to Camp Tontozona, a training ground near Payson. The new bell, cast in 1941, was purchased by the ASU Undergraduate Student Government as a gift to ASU students, student-athletes, alumni and supporters and is similar to the original bell in size and model. It is mounted on a custom maroon and gold wagon.
“I just love the pageantry of college football,” Graham said in a statement. “The tradition, the customs – all of it helps enhance the experience for student-athletes, coaches, staff, fans, supporters and alumni.”
Details are still being discussed about when and where the bell will return. NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS
Graham said the scout team offense has struggled so far to simulate Washington State’s “Air Raid” offense, which has given the Cougars the Pac-12’s top passing attack. It’s not the first time the scout team has fallen short simulating an opposing offense, as Oregon and USC posed similar challenges, at least in level of difficulty.
— Senior right guard Andrew Sampson practiced completely Tuesday for the first time since injuring his right ankle against Oregon on Oct. 18. He has missed three games but is expected back against Washington State this Saturday.
— Junior defensive tackle Mike Pennel, suspended for last Saturday’s game in Los Angeles for violating a team rule, was not at practice Tuesday.