Last week against Washington State, Arizona State senior running back Marion Grice seemingly did the impossible. He helped the offense score a lot of points without entering the end zone.
The ASU offense had one of its most impressive performances of the year and put up 55 points on the Cougars. This may come as surprise but Grice, the nation's leading scorer with 108 total points, did not find the end zone when his offense scored more than 50 points.
Even though he did not put any points on the board himself, he was very instrumental in the offense's success.
ASU scored three touchdowns to start the game against WSU on the same play, the zone read option. The extreme attention paid to Grice by the opposing defense allowed junior quarterback Taylor Kelly to run for two touchdowns and throw for another to start off the game.
"They tried to take Marion out of it a little bit and Taylor did a good job making his reads and managing the perimeter on it so it opened up pretty nice," offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said.
The read option is a foundational element of Norvell's system and against WSU was most the effective it's been all year. ASU's players and coaches were not surprised by its success because of the work they put in practicing it and hope it continues for the rest of the season.
There are three keys to the play: the fake, the read and the execution.
The fake and the read happen almost simultaneously. Kelly puts the ball in Grice's arms while he looks at the play side defensive end.
If the end moves down the line -- what in football parlance is referred to as crashing -- to help with the run inside, Kelly will quickly take the ball out of Grice's hands and run to the outside. If the end stays home then Kelly lets go of the ball to Grice. Kelly decided to keep the ball multiple times against WSU and ran for 74 yards on 13 carries.
Kelly waits till the last possible moment to decide. Grice said it can be stressful because he does not know where the ball is going until Kelly makes up his mind.
When the offense is close to the end zone, Grice is understandably a little disappointed when Kelly pulls the ball. As much as he scores, he'd love to do it more.
"On the goal line, I always feel like he's going to give me the ball but he pulls it and walks in," Grice said. "I always tell him that, 'Aw you could have given it to me, but you did a great job."
The read option was also successful against Washington for Kelly. He had 101 yards rushing on 13 carries and had two short-yardage rushing touchdowns.
It makes sense Kelly has been pulling the ball near the goal line lately. Grice has 18 total touchdowns this season, so teams are obviously going to be keying on him.
With both players firing on all cylinders and the passing attack working, the Sun Devils are averaging 46.6 points per game and have a chance to break the school record of 46.8 points set in 1972.
Teams might be spying the running back but credit Kelly and Grice for selling the fake, the result of endless practice reps building chemistry with one another.
"We work on it every day in practice for about 15, 20 minutes," Kelly said. "Even in the summer we would work it, just on air. It's all about the steps and the mesh. Me and him are on the same page. We have a good feel of when I'm about to pull it or when I'm going to give it. You have to make it look the exact same every time. Whether I have the ball, he has to carry out his fake. Whether he has the ball, I have to carry mine out."
What's remarkable about the hand-off, or mesh as Kelly described it, is Kelly's eyes are not even on Grice.
Grice has the responsibility of carrying the ball up the middle or carrying out a good fake. Kelly has to make the quick decision by reading the defensive end or outside linebacker in some circumstances.
Norvell said his quarterback has improved making these decisions.
"Honestly, he's done a good job," Norvell said. "I think there's still some reads that we can be better on. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of repetition. He's put in a good amount of time doing that and I think you see the pay off."
It doesn't matter if Kelly keeps the ball or gives it to Grice, the play comes down to execution. This is where the offensive line comes in. Kelly might make the right read, but the play is not going to go anywhere if the linemen do not sustain their blocks.
Senior tackle Evan Finkenberg said the offensive linemen are like Grice, most the time they do not know exactly where the play is going.
"Most the time we just have to make sure we do our job up front and if we get enough push, he usually gives the ball," Finkenberg said. "But sometimes if he sees a different look outside maybe he might throw to different receivers or different things like that. He gives a little alert out there but most of the time we don't really know exactly where it's going."
Finkenberg alluded to the fact on some plays Kelly has two decisions to make. Even after he pulls the ball from Grice, he still has the option to throw the ball to a receiver after he starts running to the outside.
On the third ASU touchdown in the WSU game, Kelly made the right decision and chose to pass to sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong for an 11-yard touchdown.
Kelly had already scored two rushing touchdowns against the Cougars on the zone read play. So when the defenders saw him tuck it and run, the defensive backs shifted their focus toward Kelly.
This lead to Strong getting open on a slant route and Kelly threw on the run for the touchdown.
When there is a pass option, it is important for Kelly to tell his offensive linemen. Finkenberg said when they get the alert, they need to adjust their blocking to avoid getting called for an illegal receiver downfield.
"We can go down three yards, I think it is," Finkenberg said. "So it's like a three yard little cushion you have so sometimes maybe if you don't see us going as physical to a linebacker or different things like that, it's because there might be a pass option behind that."
On the zone read option plays, the ASU offense takes what the defense gives them. The same can be said about the offense in general.
Norvell said before the game he actually did not plan on calling the play as much as he did.
"That play we didn't go into the game really planning on running it during the Washington State game," Norvell said. "But after the first series we saw it was there and we were able to adapt and put the thing in there on the side. We've got a lot of different options. We've got some great guys on the perimeter. We just got to be able to react and make adjustments depending on what the defense is giving us."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he noticed how well ASU is running the zone read option in his press conference Tuesday. He should be preparing his defense to defend it this week.
Saturday will be another chance for Norvell to find holes in the defense if the zone read is not an option.