Each week during the Pac-12 season, we'll try to hook up with our fellow SB Nation sites across the conference. We'll stay in the desert southwest again this week with Arizona State's great site, House of Sparky. Co-managing editor Ryan Bafaloukas was kind enough to talk about ASU's slow start, their keys to success this weekend, and the hottest team on the Tempe campus.
Bruins Nation: I quietly had ASU as my favorite for the Pac-12 South in the preseason, but they've had a bit of a rough start. Now, the A&M game was a de facto home game for the Aggies, and Southern Cal is a big player in the conference again, so it's not as bad as it seems. It's still early in the season and the South will be a slugfest all the way so there's opportunity to get right back in the thick of things, but why do you think ASU was slower out of the gate than many expected, and what needs to change to pick things up?
Ryan at House of Sparky: The main issues for Arizona State through four games have mostly been on the offensive side of the ball. The offense just has not found its groove yet with Mike Bercovici and a lot of people (not myself) are wondering aloud if Bercovici is a good fit in Mike Norvell's offense. ASU has been able to run the football, with Demario Richard breaking through as one of the best backs in the Pac-12, but the passing game lacks explosiveness and effectiveness to this point.
The Sun Devils have shot themselves in the foot with turnovers and bad execution. They have to take better care of the football, something Todd Graham and his staff stress is vital to their program. I think the offense needs more explosiveness and honestly they just have to start executing better.
BN: As the stakes have increased, college football fanbases seem to have gotten very reactionary. For a team like ASU, I think concern from the fans is understandable, but I think it would too early to panic, too. How are the Sun Devil faithful reacting to the 2-2 start and is that reaction fair?
HoS: I'm glad you asked this question because Sun Devil nation is destroying this team on the message boards and social media, more the coaches than the players. Some fans have called for both Todd Graham and Mike Norvell to be fired and a lot of people have left this team for dead. Some of their reactions have been warranted, when you say this is your best team since you have been at ASU - which Graham said multiple times this offseason - and you don't come through, people get angry. Even after the USC loss, Graham said he still thought this was his best team since he has been at ASU.
A lot of people are getting tired of Graham saying how good the practices have been and how talented this team is because it has not translated to the field.
BN: Todd Graham's contract was recently extended for another year. It seems like a good move in principle as Graham and ASU have flourished together, but was it enough? Are you guys good with the extension or should it have been for longer?
HoS: This was one of those extensions that is for recruiting purposes. It's just adding another year to his deal with I believe a $200,000 raise. The extension was reported this summer but approved by the Board of Regents this past week. Todd Graham is the best thing to happen to ASU in a long time. He has made them relevant in the Pac-12, he has competed with UCLA and USC and he has been recruiting at a relatively high level. My guess is he will coach at ASU for a long time.
BN: Despite the score, Mike Bercovici lit up the Bruins defense last season to the tune of nearly 500 yards. Now any school would miss a guy like Jaelen Strong, but do you see ASU having that edge in the passing game again this year, especially with Berco having a lot more experience under his belt that the last meeting?
HoS: As I alluded to above, the passing game has been struggling through four games. The ASU wide receivers have had a difficult time creating separation, especially down the field. Another issue seems to be the offensive philosophy as a whole. It seems like ASU is running the Taylor Kelly offense with Bercovici at quarterback, even though they are very different players. Bercovici has a big arm and can get the ball downfield, however ASU as a team has the second fewest plays of 20 yards in the conference. Part of the issue is protecting Bercovici and part of the issue is the wide receivers creating separation and getting open. As of now, I would have to give the edge in the passing game to UCLA.
BN: Was I the only one who was breathing a sigh of relief when it appeared DJ Foster was going to primarily be a receiver primarily? The dude terrifies me whenever he gets the ball. How has that move worked out for the ASU offense, and what impact will it have on his NFL future?
HoS: Foster has split time in the backfield and as a running back. Injuries to Kalen Ballage and De'Chavon Hayes forced Foster into the backfield the past few weeks, hurting the passing game in the process. Foster does lead ASU with 22 catches, however he is averaging just 8.6 yards per catch. The Sun Devils have had a hard time getting Foster the ball in space and he has had a hard time making defenders miss. ASU needs Foster at wide receiver because they are deep in the backfield and need explosiveness at receiver.
I'm not quite sure what Foster's draft status is as of now. He is extremely consistent, catching a pass in every game he has played in college. He most likely projects as a slot back at the next level, and recently there has been a need for that at the next level.
BN: De'Chavon Haves joins Kallen Ballage and an increasing number of Pac-12 players going two ways. Jim Mora and UCLA have done this the last several years, too, and it certainly generates a buzz around the player and program, but is this a healthy thing for a team or a player in the big scheme?
HoS: Hayes just recently began to play defensive back because starting cornerback Lloyd Carrington was injured against USC. Ballage fought through mono and missed the first three games of the year and Graham stated recently because of his health he won't see time on defense this year. I would expect Hayes to play primarily on defense this week if Carrington is not ready to play.
BN: Since Graham and Mora took over their respective programs in 2012, no home team has won this matchup, which bothers me a lot for obvious reasons this week. What do ASU fans see as the keys to the game this Saturday?
HoS: It's going to be important for the offense to start quickly. ASU fell behind USC 35-0 last Saturday and the offense struggled to begin the game against Texas A&M. Start fast, and make UCLA catch up. Defensively, the ASU staff has brought up how balanced UCLA is so stopping the run and forcing Rosen to beat them is key. Also, tackling is very important. ASU likes to blitz and this creates one-on-one matchups in the secondary, which USC took advantage of last week.
BN: And while we've got you on the line, ASU Women's Volleyball is enjoying an incredible start (13-0, 2-0) to the 2015 season. Do you think this season marks a breakthrough for the program?
HoS: It most certainly does represent a breakthrough for the program. Jason Watson has been steadily building this program for the last few years and now it seems they have the talent to compete with anybody in the conference. The big test will come on Friday against perennial power Stanford.