With a stated goal of averaging at least 82 plays from scrimmage per game, the Todd Graham-era at Arizona State kicked off with a rather pedestrian-like 71 plays in a 63-6 win over Northern Arizona last Thursday, but that doesn't tell the whole story.
Graham said his offense spent much of the second-team waiting around intentionally in order to burn clock so as to not run the score up on the opponent. But in the rest of the game, he wasn't pleased with his team's pace, which he judges by how much time is on the play clock when the ball is snapped. Ideally he said he'd like to see it between 22-25 seconds, but much too often it was in the teens.
"It was the worst thing about Week 1," Graham said Monday. "Our tempo was very, very, very slow. You cut your head off to spite your face on that deal. You have to figure out where it is that we can operate. We are waiting on the defense. It's like we are being courteous to them and letting them line up. We need to go.
"A lot of that is being familiar with how to identify the fronts, how to identify the coverage and then our quarterback just being comfortable to where he can go through all of the things he needs to do which is a lot. We want ten guys going as fast as they can go and the quarterback going at his pace. That is the biggest thing we talked about."
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Norvell agreed with the assessment and said the burden trickles throughout the entire offense.
"It's all positions," Norvell said. "The blame doesn't go on one person. It goes from the offensive line to the receivers to the running backs, everybody getting set and then the quarterback having to be in tune with that and getting the right tempo. It was okay but not anywhere near where it needs to be. I think a lot of that, a few times we were letting the defense get set. We've got to go out there and put the hammer down and get going with it and we're continuing to stress that every day and continue to get faster."
Starting sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly took some responsibility and said getting the pace where it needs to be starts immediately after the conclusion of a play.
"We've got to get the receivers lined up quicker, the o-line," Kelly said. "It starts with me, getting pushed up (from the last play), getting the o-line moving, make their calls, get them set. It starts with me, looking to the signal and getting the play called."
There's a tactical advantage to getting lined up and into the next play, as it helps prevent opposing defenses from adjusting to the formation they observe with their ideal call. That's particularly important against a team like Illinois this week, as it likes to move its best pass rusher around depending on offensive alignment.
"The thing I've been stressing to our guys is the fast we get our tempo, the less of the jumping around and movement that defenses can do," Norvell said. "We have a lot of respect for what they do defensively and are looking forward to a heck of a football game."
While all involved agreed that the pace of play can and should be improved, there was also universal agreement that the quality of the play was quite good for any opener much less a regime opener which also included a new starting quarterback.
"I've got high expectations but it was good," Norvell said. "They came out and played pretty well. They ddin't let the nerves, let the moment get too big and they came out and made plays. There has been a great deal of improvement and I'm looking forward to the biggest improvement between Week 1 and Week 2."
Focus lacking Wednesday
Graham tends to repeat ad nauseam - and intentionally so - that taking care of the football and limiting non-physical mistakes will ultimately detemine the outcome of most football games. It's something he's working to embed in the culture of his program, and so far, he's said it's been one of the biggest struggles. Wednesday was a challenging day in that regard.
"Way too many mental errors today," Graham said. "The big thing going into this season is not beat yourself. This is a huge game for us, a huge game for us. We came out and did really good in Week 1 but we're coming up against a formidable opponent this week, and not that NAU's not, but this is a very, very tough opponent, a really, really good defensive football, really, really quality players.
"We had 12 mental errors last week on defense, we had probably 16 on offense. We can't have those and be successful. We've got to eliminate those. Today we had a great spirit but too many mental errors and maybe some of those are things we have to simplify but I do like the spirit from which our guys are competing. We've just go to keep hammering and straining them to make sure we don't slide back into carelessness. The main thing is don't beat ourselves."
Pennel out for Illinois
Massive 6-foot-5, 355 pound junior defensive tackle Mike Pennel is facing a one game suspension this week for not adhering to team standards, Graham said Wednesday. Pennel, a junior college transfer out of Scottsdale Community College, played primarily with the second-team in the opener behind true freshman Jaxon Hood in his first Division I game.