Special-teams woes torment Sun Devils

BY foxsports • September 23, 2013

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State had plenty of issues in its 42-28 loss to No. 5 Stanford over the weekend, but none more apparent than special teams.

"We made a lot of errors in special teams," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "Special teams was the glaring deal."

The special teams disaster got rolling on the first play of the day as the kickoff cover team broke down and Stanford returned the opening kick to the 50-yard line.

That return did  to a field-goal attempt, which Stanford missed, but it set a tone for the rest of the first half, which the Cardinal dominated.

"Field position was critical from the opening kickoff," Graham said. "The mistakes we made in the kicking game were just really catastrophic early."

Stanford's average starting field position in the half was its 44-yard line. ASU, meanwhile, started its seven first-half possessions on its 19.

Then there was ASU's punting game, where freshman Matt Haack got his first action, taking over for walk-on junior Dom Vizzare. Haack averaged 38.8 yards per punt on four kicks. ASU ranks last among FBS teams nationally in net punting (26.69).

"The thing that's so frustrating about that is in pre-game, both those guys are just absolutely killing the ball, absolutely killing it," Graham said. "We have not punted the ball very well. I cannot deny that, but we're very capable of doing that."

Haack had a second-quarter punt blocked when the punt shield group lined up too deep in the backfield. The kick struck ASU's Davon Coleman and bounced into the end zone, where Haack was forced to kick it out for a safety. Stanford blocked another punt in the second half when Kelly's pooch punt attempt was too low.

Graham did not say so directly, but it appears the punting situation for this week's game against USC remains fluid.

"I think with the two punters we have, they'll wind up being very good punters for us," Graham said. "We'd just like them to do it this week."

Additionally, freshman place-kicker Zane Gonzalez missed his third field goal of the season, this one from 45 yards. He is now 4 for 7 on the year, with all three misses coming from 40 yards or more.

Graham said special teams improvement will be a major focus this week but also that they are already a primary focus every week. Thus, some personnel changes could be in the works.

"You can't spend anymore meeting time or practice time than what we spend on special teams," Graham said. "It's the most I've ever spent."

Starting defensive tackle Jaxon Hood left Saturday's game in the second quarter with a leg injury and did not return. Graham said Monday that Hood is "very doubtful" to play against USC.

That leave's ASU in a tough spot inside on the defensive line. Jake Sheffield and Mo Latu filled in after Hood left against Stanford, and there was an obvious dropoff.

"Jake did a good job filling in, (and) Mo did a good job filling in, but Jaxon's got a lot of experience," Graham said. "They ran the ball right there and took advantage of that."

Latu outperformed Sheffield, but because he's still trying to get in shape after coming to camp overweight, he's been limited to 10-15 snaps per game. The most likely solution will be moving defensive end Gannon Conway inside.

"Gannon's a very consistent, very steady player for us," Graham said. "He's very smart."

Coleman started at end last season, so he could slide in at Conway's spot or play inside, and Marcus Hardison could play both positions, too. The shuffling will test ASU's defensive line depth, which Graham believes is improved this season.

Despite the explosive duo of Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, ASU has not been able to get its run game going through three weeks. After totaling just 50 rushing yards against Stanford -- the lowest single-game total in 16 games under Graham -- ASU's rushing offense ranks 107th in the nation with 108.0 yards per game.

"That's been the biggest concern," Graham said. "We have not run the ball he way we need to."

Grice has reached the end zone six times this season but is averaging just 64.3 yards per game. Foster has just six carries and 32 rushing yards, seeing more time as a receiver.

ASU has played a pair of very talented defensive fronts in consecutive weeks against Wisconsin and Stanford. It won't be easy this week against USC's rushing defense, which ranks third in the nation with 59.3 rushing yards allowed per game.

"We've got to be able to run the football," Graham said. "We haven't done very well at that so far."

-- For the third straight week, Graham praised redshirt freshman linebacker Salamo Fiso profusely. He said Fiso is likely to start against USC.

-- According to reports, USC quarterback Cody Kessler hurt his hand against Utah State on Saturday and top receiver Marqise Lee hurt his ankle, but USC coach Lane Kiffin expects both to be "fine" in time to start against ASU.

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