As Arizona State prepares to make its final push for a South Division crown, perhaps the most positive indicator for its prospects can be found in the running game, specifically between the tackles.
Over its last three games, ASU has averaged close to 200 yards per contest on 5.34 yards per tote. Perhaps more impressively, it's had just two runs go for over 20 yards during that three game span, none of which came against UCLA, a game in which it averaged 5.3 yards per carry.
It's a far cry from its first five games against FBS competition when it averaged just over 110 yards per game on 3.2 yards per carry. In fact, when you take out Cameron Marshall's 70-yard touchdown run against USC on the team's first drive on a seldom called outside trap play, ASU had averaged 2.85 yards per carry in those first five contests.
There are likely a few factors that play into the turnaround: a healthier Marshall, improved offensive line play, it's faced weaker run defenses, and according to some, it's faced defensive schemes that have lent the Sun Devils better opportunities.
"Against UCLA, we kind of knew going into it what we were going to get," said Marshall, who went on to add that his ankle still isn't 100 percent. "We knew we were going to get their base defense a lot and we knew we could run on it. Against Colorado we faced a lot of different overload blitzes that helped us."
The Sun Devils are often thought of as a pass-heavy spread offense, which is probably true in many respects depending on how you define a swing pass, but it's interesting to note its play tendencies.
On first down this season ASU has run the ball 55 percent of the time. In the last two weeks that number has jumped to 62 percent. Excluding third down and long scenarios, ASU has run the ball close to 50 percent of the time.
For those who believe that ASU has a tendency to get away from the run after success on first down, consider that after a successful first down play that results in either second and short or second and medium, ASU runs the ball 56 percent of the time.
The games in which ASU's offense has had the highest disparity between runs and passes, where its pass attempts exceeded 60 percent of its total plays, the team was losing for most of the contest ---games against Illinois and Oregon (and Illinois was often playing with at least eight men in the proverbial box.)
While it would seem to be difficult for any prospective defense to pick up tendencies based purely on down-and-distance information, it would also seem intuitive that there would be formation tendencies based upon the amount of running backs, tight-ends and receivers in the formation, though accounting for those tendencies goes beyond the scope of this article.
While the notion that ASU gets away from the run when it's going successfully would be almost impossible to disprove, given the multitude of factors that contribute to playcalling -- the least of which include defensive personnel changes, game situations and the perceived effectiveness of certain match-ups at certain points or sides of the field, but it's another to prove that ASU has simply improved its running game.
For example, in their first five contests, the Sun Devils had 21 carries on first down that were for no gain or a loss. They had no runs for loss against UCLA on first down.
While the improved running game has not reflected itself on the scoreboard, as the Sun Devils were held below 30 points in two of the last three contests, it's once again intuitive to believe that it will pay larger dividends in the passing game at some point.
For now, however, with a clicking offensive line and a just-getting-healthy stud running back, expect the Sun Devils to run until defenses force them to throw.
"I feel like I can do a lot more than 27 carries," Marshall said about his load against the Bruins." When your adrenaline is going you don't feel it out there."
Erickson Comments on Penn State
"It's pretty much shock," Erickson said. "I know Joe, he's one of the greatest of all-time. I don't know much other than what I read. I'm just shocked just like everyone in our profession and everybody else in the country. I feel so bad for the victims and the families. It's unbelievable."