ASU’s offense continues to fight through adversity
N’Keal Harry’s decision to leave ASU after his junior season came to be officially justified when he was drafted as the final pick of the first round by the New England Patriots in 2019. With the selection, Harry became ASU’s first, first-round pick since Damarious Randall in 2015, and the first one on the offensive side of the ball since Levi Jones in 2002.
At the time, this felt like a pretty cool way to close out the first year-and-a-half of the Herm Edwards era of ASU football.
Now, with the Sun Devils sitting at 5-4 overall and officially eliminated from Pac-12 championship contention- two games earlier than they were in 2018- seeing Harry as a sideline guest during last Saturday’s loss against USC is likely making countless ASU fans fantasize about what could have been had he stayed for his senior season.
While no one could be reasonably doubting the current and future talent that ASU’s offense has (or Harry’s decision, in case that wasn’t made obvious), a combination of several factors have led to what has become an underwhelming season for the unit; one which seemed to culminate in that thrilling 38-34 victory versus Washington State exactly one month ago.
It was a win that marked ASU’s first as a ranked team under Edwards still stands as the highest single-game output in 2019 by points (38) and yards (532), and also is the most recent game the Sun Devils have won.
“I think we have good looks that we want, I just think sometimes you can’t win every play,” junior running back Eno Benjamin candidly stated. “Sometimes they make the play, and sometimes we win, and so we’re just trusting the game plan. I think we have some good people in the right position to make plays, it’s just about getting it done.”
Some examples of those factors contributing to the unit’s continued lack of consistency include; changing from one true freshman starting quarterback to another, youth at key spots on the offensive line, and extreme inclement weather- as it would pertain to the Utah contest specifically.
But when one looks at these factors, and even considers some others not mentioned that have caused the offense adversity, it would seem that just having one more superstar player such as Harry could have alleviated lots of these problems.
That’s not to say players like senior receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Kyle Williams, or junior receiver Frank Darby, haven’t been strong players in their roles. But there’s no doubt another key player at tight end or receiver would keep defenses guessing a little bit more, and maybe allow the offense the chance to make that one more play that wins contests like the ones against Colorado or USC, or even allow the unit to keep the UCLA game from getting too out-of-hand too early.
“We’ve kind of just been letting these losses kind of carry over into the next week,” Aiyuk said. “We have a chance to go on the road, get a road win again, clear the slate and then go get bowl-eligible.”
The offense the Sun Devils got is the offense they’ll have to make do with it with and as Aiyuk implied, there’s still lots to go out and play for. Aside from clinching a bowl-game berth- and averting a disastrous finish to the season that would set the program back to 2016, at that- and improving on the program’s win total of the past few seasons, the importance of finishing strong cannot be overstated.
“We have a lot of young guys on this team, a lot of young receivers,” Aiyuk said. “(Wide receivers coach Charlie Fisher) just wants me to leave- not just what I do on the field, just me as a leader and as a player, just a leave a good taste in these young guy’s mouths and lead by example just so they know what it’s supposed to look like from an older guy on the receiving core.
“So, I just try to be positive, just try to lead those guys by example, not only with my play but the way I handle certain situations just because I know all those guys are looking at me.”
Junior starting running back Eno Benjamin is another example of a star player on the offense who may not be around next season and has had to shift his perspective on this 2019 campaign as its final games approach.
Although his 983 net scrimmage yards at this point in the season project a significant drop-off from his 2018 total of 1,894 (albeit he is on track to improve his numbers as a pass-catcher), he’s been just as, if not more valuable to the team than a year ago due to the attention opposing defenses now dedicate to him.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot more than just running the football,” Benjamin said. “I’ve learned more so how to become a great leader and stay positive when adversity strikes.
“I got to take everything such as carrying out ball fakes, and when I don’t get the ball when it’s an RPO or throw—just making sure I can create room for other guys when they try to take me out of the game.”
To return to the point of finishing strong, there’s no better example to use than how ASU’s season ended in 2018, literally in the final minutes of the final game; the Las Vegas Bowl loss against Fresno State.
The otherwise flat offensive performance, outside of the showings from Benjamin and Aiyuk, previewed the sort of “starting from scratch” feeling that the unit would be confronted with in 2019. Having only scored 20 points throughout that contest, a gruesome knee injury to then starting quarterback Manny Wilkins brought that sentiment full circle.
In the first few games of this season, and in looking back on the past few games over the last month, this proved to be an accurate assessment of how the unit would end up progressing throughout the year.
However, with the likes of young talent such as freshmen receivers Geordon Porter, Jordan Kerley, Ricky Pearsall and freshman tight end Nolan Matthews, not to mention the quarterback situation, there’s every reason to believe the offense can start a strong finish to the season with this weekend’s matchup at Oregon State.
“As young people mature, they learn that dwelling on the past and what you can’t control isn’t going to do anything to help you,” offensive line coach Dave Christensen commented. “Just focus on what you control, you control the next rep and how you perform on it, and that’s all we can do (as a team).”
Join us on our premium message board, the Devils’ Huddle, to discuss this article and other ASU football and recruiting topics. Not a member yet? Sign up today here and join your fellow Sun Devil fans!