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December 5, 2013

Cardinal will face evolved ASU offense in rematch

When Arizona State traveled to play at Stanford early this season the host team had one of the best offensive lines in the country. That is still true.

In the same game, ASU's offensive line looked like one of the worst in the conference, even though it clearly proved otherwise through the rest of the year.

The entire ASU team came out flat and unfocused in the first half, which allowed Stanford to jump to a 29-0 lead. The offensive line had one of the roughest starts. It could not get the run game established against the large, stout Stanford defensive front and the offense only amassed 50 total rushing yards throughout the entire game.

There are no new faces on the offensive line this time around. The same five guys are blocking up front for the Sun Devils but they might as well be different players than the ones who took the field in Palo Alto, Calif., that day.

The individual skills and mental continuity of the players have improved since the last time these two teams met. With new chemistry between them, the new enhanced skills and the new wrinkles in the playbook, ASU's offensive line is hoping to have a vindicating performance against Stanford Saturday.

"It's a great opportunity for us," senior tackle Evan Finkenberg said. "We're excited for it. We know we have a lot to prove, especially the o-line. I think we really have a different mindset coming into this game. We're excited to play them, excited to get a little bit more physical this game. I think it's a good opportunity for us to get a win out there."

Senior left tackle Evan Finkenberg, junior left guard Jamil Douglas and senior center Kody Koebensky were all starters last season and knew the rigors of being a Pac-12 lineman. It was only the third game for sophomore right guard Vi Teofilo and junior right tackle Tyler Sulka as a full-time starters and the Stanford defensive front was definitely the best group they had faced in their young career.

Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said the offensive line's inexperience was a factor in the game.

"That was our third game," Norvell said. "Really Sulka was just starting his third game. Vi was still very young in there. Just kind of getting that gel of what we're doing this year. I think you can see the job that (offensive line coach) Thomsen has done in growing those guys and obviously what they've been able to do and the confidence they have week in and week out. They're definitely a special group and I'm looking forward to them running out that tunnel there on Saturday."

The ASU big five is coming off perhaps its two best performances this season, against UCLA and Arizona. Graham gave credit to both offensive and defensive fronts after both games.

ASU's line made holes for its running backs to gain 223 yards on the ground against UCLA and 204 yards against UA. In each game, junior quarterback Taylor Kelly was sacked three times.

Finkenberg agreed with Norvell and said since then, the group has bonded together and more importantly worked on its communication during games. He said it definitely is easier to talk on the line at home games, so it will be an advantage facing Stanford again, this time at home.

Besides their communication, Finkenberg said little differences in the footwork and hand techniques employed have gone a long way to help advance the overall play of the line.

Finkenberg gave credit to Thomsen and the countless times the linemen have repeated the same drills to work on very specific technique for the improvement.

"It's that muscle memory part of it," Finkenberg said. "Every day when you're working those little steps, those quick little jab steps, those little six inch steps, its nothing much you would really think about but it's really a huge part of the game. Just making sure you're balanced, making sure you're doing the right footwork every play or you'll get exposed."

Fostering hope

The offensive line will be the same but there will be one major difference in the backfield when the Sun Devils face Stanford again.
Senior running back Marion Grice will not be taking hand-offs for ASU for the second straight game. Sophomore running back D.J. Foster will be the main feature back again this week it would appear.

Norvell said Foster performed well last week, when he had 23 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns in 58 point explosion over UA, and expects the same Saturday.

"Obviously we knew when Marion wasn't able to go, D.J was going to step up and I thought he did a tremendous job," Norvell said. "We're trying to make sure we put him in a position to highlight his skills and I thought he did a tremendous job hitting the hole and trusting what he saw and had a lot of explosive runs."

Nothing but a G thing

In recent games, Norvell has tried to get Foster and Grice the ball between the numbers and the boundary on the perimeter by using different play schemes and formations.

In games against UCLA and UA, the ASU offense ran a lot more plays involving what the players and coaches call their "G scheme." The G scheme are simply designed runs, screens and quick pass plays to get the team's best playmakers out in space.

A new feature has been added the scheme.
ASU offensive linemen have been pulling quickly to get out in front of the running backs on the G scheme plays. ASU linemen are used to pulling one guard usually on power plays on interior runs up the A or B gap. But this play style usually has two linemen out in the open field blocking for the running backs.

Finkenberg explained how pulling linemen to get in front Foster can help him bust open runs out on the edge, where Foster flourishes.

"It's just kind of pulling the guards a little bit more, kind of bringing those guys out on the edge, try to block those guys on linebackers," Finkenberg said. "It also gives D.J. an extra opportunity because we need those bigger bodies on those linebackers. He can kind of see the holes a little bit better and gets him out in space a little bit more."

Double tight

Besides new plays, ASU has been running some of its old standby plays more frequently out of a less commonly employed formation. The Sun Devil offense came out in double tight end set to start the game against UCLA.

The formation most typically featured senior tight end Chris Coyle with his hand down in-line next to the tackle and junior tight end De'Marieya Nelson lined up just behind him in the back field like a wing back.

The ASU offense ran a plethora of plays out of the formation including zone read away from the two ends and stretch runs with the two tight ends as lead blockers. The team's boundary receiver could even go in motion and take a hand-off on a jet sweep toward the formation strength, as sophomore Rick Smith did in his big first half run against UCLA.

Coyle said the formation had always been in the playbook but he and Nelson were not ready to run it until later in the season.

"That's something we started doing the second half of this season," Coyle said. "We started realizing that we could utilize De'Marieya's and my speed out on the edge. We've definitely gotten a lot better at blocking. That's something we've had to focus on. It's kind of just a little bit of misdirection for the defense. We're trying to get out there, get the defense moving one way and then have De'Marieya and I out on the other side getting up to a backer and a safety. It just creates a little bit more running room for the running backs and if we get our blocks it will open up huge gaps."


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