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Bruins Nation Q&A with ASU's House of Sparky

The good folks at House of Sparky, the excellent SB Nation site at Arizona State, were kind enough to answer some questions for us about the Sun Devils' program and the big game this weekend. Big thanks to Ben, Nick, Kerry, and Cody for taking the time, and swing by their great site to say hello and have a (respectful!) chat about the game.

QB Taylor Kelly leads ASU into Pasadena on Saturday.
QB Taylor Kelly leads ASU into Pasadena on Saturday.

1. Bruin fans have had mixed feeling about OC Noel Mazzone this year. Is ASU better off or worse off without Mazzone? Does that hold for the offense or for recruiting or both?

Ben Haber: ASU actually upgraded at offensive coordinator once Noel Mazzone departed. Mike Norvell appears to be one of the best young offensive minds throughout college football. Let's remember, Norvell turned down an offer to become the Auburn offensive coordinator in the offseason. For recruiting, Mazzone clearly helps out more. Mazzone consistently helps out with NFL quarterbacks, like Tim Tebow. Mazzone may not be as good as Norvell at crafting an actual game plan, but he makes up for it by bringing in better players.

Nick Marek: I agree with Ben. ASU's offense if finally the high octane offense that head coach Todd Graham wanted because Norvell is the right man for the job. It also helps that the offense has a full year of experience under the new system and their play-caller and starting running back are both upperclassmen. No disrespect for Mazzone but this year's coaching unit is better off in general. Last year, ASU was known for their shut-down defense. This year it's exactly the opposite. When you try to recruit offensive players, they will love seeing an explosive offense where they can fit into because a lot of different players take snaps. Manny Wilkins is already excited to be a Sun Devil. If you don't believe me go check out his Twitter feed.

Kerry Crowley: It's not surprising to ASU fans that UCLA folks aren't exactly thrilled with Mazzone. Mazzone had some great games as a play-caller at Arizona State, but he also had games in which he failed to live up to his billing. Right now, the Sun Devils are thrilled with Mike Norvell as their offensive coordinator. Norvell's just 31 years old and he'll have a head coaching job soon. Todd Graham praises him as the best offensive game planner he's been around, and that includes Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris. Still, the Sun Devils do lose a bit when it comes to recruiting as Mazzone was able to pull in some dynamic offensive playmakers. Recruiting is a phase of football that Mike Norvell has really improved upon and he has great potential, but I'm not so sure he's Mazzone's equal just yet.

Cody Ulm: Just to reiterate what everyone already said, Norvell is the man. I'll always be a fan of Noel Mazzone and was pretty bummed when he left but we couldn't have found a better coordinator to replace him. While he's been known to get a little cute at times, you'd be hard-pressed to find a coordinator who knows how to utilize what he's working with better. It's only a matter of time before Norvell is head honcho for another team and deservingly so.

2. ASU brought in just 3 of the top-15 in-state prospects this fall per Rivals. Looking at the 2014 recruiting class, ASU currently has a verbal commitment from just one top-20 Arizona prospect. Do you see those numbers as reflecting a particular recruiting strategy by Graham, or as lost recruiting battles/recruiting misses?

Nick Krueger: This is definitely a recruiting strategy by Graham. He's from Texas and is reaching deeper into the south and even into Louisiana and Florida to get recruits. Graham's strategy of "Speaking victory" and "Graham 360" and the fabled "Boom" tweets speaks to recruits like no one else can. In fact, D.J. Calhoun was committed to USC and decommitted from the Trojans only to commit to ASU the next week after one visit to campus. If that's not convincing that Graham's recruiting strategies are working, I don't know what is.

Ben Haber: Since Todd Graham took over at ASU, the emphasis on recruiting stays within the Valley of The Sun. Despite the sole top-20 comit from Arizona, Graham has helped address this issue. Throughout Tempe there are billboards that say: "Stay true 2 ASU". D.J. Foster, Jaxon Hood and Chans Cox are all recent examples of nation wide prospects coming to ASU. At the same time, Graham losses some battles to UCLA and USC, just like most schools.

Nick Marek: The recruiting strategy that Nick mentioned is very true. I'm not sure long run how it will affect the ASU football program, but what Rivals won't tell you is that ASU signed two of the best JUCO classes since Graham became a Sun Devil - Jaelen Strong and Marion Grice, anyone? ASU has a "southern" pipeline I guess you can call it and it's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just interesting because fans will always see another Arizona high school recruit signing with UCLA or USC or even Washington. Sure it's always nice to have top in-state recruits commit but it's not always that easy. Ben mentioned they are looking for commitment out of the high school talent and they want the recruits to fit their image of an athlete and hard working is a word that Graham always throws out. It doesn't matter what part of the country they are from.

3. ASU can clinch the Pac-12 South with a victory on Saturday. What would playing in the Pac-12 Title game mean for the program? Would that be enough to satisfy fans right now or is a Pac-12 title this year a realistic expectation for anyone in the South?

Nick Kruger: Remember, this is Arizona sports we're talking about here. Regardless of whether or not the Sun Devils make the Pac-12 title game, the Arizona State fan base will continually be hit and miss. I think making the Pac-12 title game and therefore winning the south would be enough for ASU. The fanbase would love a Rose Bowl birth but they are also realistically managing expectations against an Oregon or Stanford in the title game. It would mean a lot to the football program as a whole but I think it means more to ASU and fans that Todd Graham runs a stand-up and clean program.

Ben Haber: ASU has been on the verge of getting on the map countless times. Winning the tough Pac-12 South division would be enough for them to be considered elite, putting them at about top 10 in the BCS rankings. The Pac-12 conference clearly ranks as second best and arguably best in college football, so taking home the South Division crown speaks volumes to the progress of the program. Making the conference championship would be enough to satisfy fans, and rightfully so. I don't think ASU can beat national powerhouses in Oregon or Stanford.

Nick Marek: Ummm... HUGE! Let's keep this short and sweet. ASU does not have a "big" victory yet in my eyes under the leadership of Graham. And no, I'm not counting Wisconsin and that fluke finale. A win at the Rose Bowl to clinch the Pac-12 South crown. That would change everything. Fans and recruits will recognize that.

4. It looks like ASU has had some trouble converting third downs this year. Running one of the most efficient offenses in the country, but only converting 42% is peculiar. Is that a play-calling issue or just execution?

Nick Krueger: I would say about 70/30 execution. When the Sun Devils running game can't get going its really scary because the offense relies so much on tempo to keep them driving down the field. If ASU reaches third down in any situation, it means the tempo has stalled a little bit and they are out of rhythm hence they don't convert nearly as many as they probably should.

Ben Haber: I didn't realize the number was that low. Execution problems get the blame. Third and long are nightmares for the offense, but you have to play with the cards you are dealt. In these scenarios, the ASU offensive line breaks down. Taylor Kelly and company are still averaging 42.3 points per game despite the decent third down numbers.

Cody Ulm: Kreug hit the nail on the head. It's purely a rhythm and tempo thing. When the Sun Devils are clicking, they're rarely seeing third downs. That's why it's so important to get Arizona State out of its element early. And it all begins with bottling up that read-option.

5. Taylor Kelly has been electric at times, but the last two games he's thrown for just 327 yards combined with 2 picks to just 1 touchdown and rushed for a total of -3 yards. Is that an issue with his play or just a couple of fluky matchup problems? Of course, both of those games were wins, too, so does the team's success really depend on his stats?

Ben Haber: Taylor Kelly defines consistency. The last two games hurt that reputation. Fluky matchups and some rare bad decision are the main reasons for his recent struggles. I honestly believe Kelly may be the among the best quarterbacks in college football few people know about. Brett Hundley was in the Hesiman Trophy while Kelly flew under the radar. Both sport nearly identical statistics. For ASU to win, Kelly needs to get back on track. The Sun Devil's defense was good enough to carry them against Utah and Oregon State. The same can't be said against UCLA. Kelly doesn't need to post his usual 40-plus points, yet 30-plus points need to come into fruition on Saturday.

Nick Marek: This weekend is a chance for Kelly to erase some of those question marks and turn them into exclamation points. Ben said it best when he mentioned Hundley stole all the attention along with Marcus Mariota as the best dual-threat QBs in the Pac-12. He has been know by ASU fans for his consistency, but the only game that scared me a little was last game against Oregon State. A couple of interceptions isn't anything to freak about though and this weekend against UCLA will be a good chance for him to bounce back and rediscover his confidence.

6. ASU has both a dynamic running game between Kelly and Marion Grice and some explosive receivers with Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster. Is passing or running more important at making the ASU offense go (understanding you can't really separate the two), and which would you advise UCLA defense to focus on more?

Nick Krueger: Rushing game no doubt. If ASU can't stay balanced they're in trouble. Take away Marion Grice and you take away the heart of everything the Sun Devils try to do. ASU can't live off Taylor Kelly and when the running game wasn't working against Oregon State you saw the team as a whole struggle.

Cody Ulm: It's 100 percent the run game. Taylor Kelly may be the only Sun Devil who can will the team to victory in a one-game scenario but Arizona State's offense isn't nearly the same when the run game fails. Outside of Jaelen Strong, Arizona State's wide receivers aren't the most consistent at creating separation. Those third-down troubles you touched on stem from the run game (or mostly the run-blocking) failing at times. The X-Factor for Arizona State's offense is getting Kelly to do some damage with his feet whether it's out of the read-option of improvising. When he's able to make plays on the ground, defenses start to overthink things and that's when the Devils offense appears to be superhuman. Kelly isn't the fastest quarterback in the nation but he picks his spots masterfully and he can be deceptively shifty at times.

7. On the defensive side, we all know about Will Sutton (and we wish we didn't). When he's commanding double and triple teams on the line, who else is stepping up and making plays in the front 7 this year?

Nick Krueger: The line has been a delicate balance all season. Carl Bradford could technically be considered a lineman even though his official position is "devilbacker" so he would be priority number one behind Sutton. Besides that their isn't necessarily a number two lineman to speak of. Gannon Conway and Davon Coleman have both stepped up in different games in different situations. If I had to choose one I would say Coleman who has 44 tackles and five sacks so far this season.

Kerry Crowley: In all honesty, I'm shocked the question doesn't say, "we all know about Will Sutton and Carl Bradford.." because that's how good Bradford's been this season. Bradford is ASU's version of Anthony Barr and though he's not the on-field talent Barr is, he has the physical attributes to thrive at the next level. Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway have also played exceptionally well of late, and it wouldn't surprise me if either of those guys found their way onto the All Pac-12 teams this season. The defensive line is this team's strongest unit, but don't forget about Chris Young at linebacker. The team's leading tackler can play on the strong and the weak side, and he compliments redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso well.

Nick Marek: This front seven has been so hindered by injuries all year long it seems like and Sutton is getting the attention of everyone. Bradford has been unreal for ASU this season as well and Chris Young has been good at times. I think the real thing is how well Irabor has been at stopping the run. Different players are stepping up at different times and it's truly a team effort. Conway does it one night, Coleman the next, and ASU fans can breathe a little. The front seven is very experienced and a couple of first year players are learning from the best. Just because they aren't making as much noise as they did a year ago does not mean they aren't doing a great job. A few weeks ago they held the second best rusher in the NCAA at the time, Bishop Sankey of Washington, and crew to negative yards so the Bruins backs will have their work cut out for them.

8. Just how good is DB Osahon Irabor? Do the Bruins even bother to attack his side of the field?

Nick Krueger: Brett Hundley should definitely try and just see what happens. The ASU secondary is very good but its certainly not impenetrable. Everyone has gotten beat on a few plays this season. The biggest weakness for the ASU defensive backfield is their size, Irabor is only five feet 11 inches tall. If I were UCLA I would test Irabor against Shaquielle Evans (who has two inches on Irabor) and see what happens.

Kerry Crowley: Right now, opposing teams are probably looking at Irabor as the guy they WANT to attack. Of course, Irabor is the Sun Devils' top corner, but Robert Nelson plays opposite of him and he's intercepted five passes in the past five games. Irabor is the complete package at cornerback, but that doesn't mean he's a lockdown cover man. The senior is actually at his best coming off the edge in run support, so it's totally feasible if UCLA challenges him through the air, even if it's someone other than Shaquelle Evans running at him.

Nick Marek: For as much as we've talked about the front seven, it seems like UCLA's only option it to attack the entire secondary. Mix in some different play calling because ASU plans for the expected and has executed very well on defense the last month. They are both right, Irabor is not the lockdown corner but is very smart at his position and rarely gets beat so quick slant routes can be effective. Might as well try, right?

9. Todd Graham has done a really nice job at ASU. With major programs (Southern Cal, Texas, Florida, Nebraska) all likely to be looking for new coaches this off-season, in there any concern that Graham leaves Tempe? And if he does, who should be on ASU's short list for his replacement?

Nick Krueger: Lane Kiffin? Alright all kidding aside Todd Graham just recently signed a contract extension through 2018. Michael Crow, the president of ASU, did a nice job making sure Graham couldn't follow former athletic director Steve Patterson to Texas and I fully expect him to do everything I can to make sure Graham stays put. Graham has also stated his intent to stay at Arizona State for a long time. The real question is who is in line for the athletic director job. I would love to see Jerry Colangelo take up the position but that remains to be seen. Oliver Luck, the other candidate for the Texas Job, may be an option as well.

Kerry Crowley: The problem with the schools looking for new coaches right now is that they're almost too prestigious and dead-set on making a coaching splash that it's hard to see Graham being a candidate at the major jobs. I could see Nebraska making a run at Graham because he's a defensive-minded coach, but I don't see USC, Texas or Florida looking his way. I think ASU's biggest concern is that if a coach from an SEC school (Say Kevin Sumlin goes to USC) leaves, then Graham becomes a pretty viable candidate. Right now, Graham's done an incredible job rebuilding the foundation of this program and he's made it his own to the point where it's hard to imagine him leaving. With the success he's finding and the recruits he has pledging, I wouldn't expect Graham to go anywhere.

Thanks again to Ben, Nick, Kerry, and Cody.  Great work by those guys here.  Check out House of Sparky and get all the things you need to know about ASU sports.