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Arizona State Football Offensive Preview
ASU is in the middle of a rebuilding year. Can Cal hold an underrated squad at bay?
ASU is in the middle of a rebuild, and the season has been rough so far. They struggled in the season opener against a middling FCS team in Southern Utah; they were 34.5-point favorites, and narrowly escaped with an ugly 3 point victory. They started off competitive with Oklahoma State before being shutout in the second half, going from a 15-10 lead at halftime and ultimately losing 27-15. They were completely dominated by Fresno State, losing 29-0, but it could have been way uglier if not for a number of clutch redzone defensive stops to keep forcing Fresno State into field goals over touchdowns. Last week, they finally put it all together for a competitive loss to USC 42-28 (this time, in Southern Utah’s shoes, as 34.5-point underdogs). It was a one-score game until USC’s final touchdown midway through the 4th quarter.
So how did they do it? In my view, the strength of this ASU team is their defensive line, and they harassed Heisman-winning QB Caleb Williams into having a relatively rough game by his standards. On the other side of the ball, they controlled the pace of the game with their run-heavy offense and just generally played with nothing to lose: going for it multiple times on 4th downs deep in their own territory, a surprise onside kick, and breaking open the playbook for all sorts of creative trick plays throughout the game. They limited the damage that USC did on offense and tried to steal possessions anywhere they could. If they didn’t happen to lose the turnover battle (crucial in this game where ASU needed every possession to count), they were actually in pretty good position for the upset. So they can play down to their opponents, or up to their competition.
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There’s quite a few connections to Cal on this squad: former Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin is the OC/QB coach there, and former Cal special teams coordinator Charlie Ragle now also holds that position at ASU. Not surprisingly, a number of Cal transfers joined them as well: offensive lineman Ben Coleman (injured), running back DeCarlos Brooks, kicker Dario Longhetto, and his long-snapper Slater Zellers.
They’re led by first-year head coach and ASU alum, Kenny Dillingham. Dillingham was previously the offensive coordinator for powerful offenses at Auburn, Florida State, and Oregon, and is currently the youngest head coach in the FBS. After ASU’s embarrassing shutout loss to Fresno State, Dillingham took over play-calling duties from Beau Baldwin for the USC game, and that helped put a spark in the ASU offense. It will be interesting to see if ASU continues those gutsy play-calls or if they settle back down to a base offense.
The current quarterback situation at ASU is a mess. The starting quarterback for the season opener was the Jayden Daniels-esque true freshman QB Jaden Rashada, a 4-star dual-threat quarterback who was an unfortunate victim of some unscrupulous Florida NIL collectives during his recruiting. Unfortunately, after playing the first 2 games, he was injured at some point prior to the 3rd game against Fresno State. So Trenton Bourguet got the start, threw an interception, and was injured shortly thereafter. So Notre Dame transfer QB Drew Pyne (the one Cal saw at ND last year) came in, took a bunch of big hits and sacks, threw two more interceptions (and had two fumbles on those sacks), and was pulled for the 4th string QB Jacob Conover (the former BYU backup). He also had a rough go at it, throwing an interception and very few completions, and so ASU turned back to Drew Pyne for the USC game. Except apparently, Drew Pyne re-aggravated a number of injuries in that game, and is unavailable for the Cal game.
So… who’s the quarterback now? At the time of this writing, reports indicate that Trenton Bourguet should be available and is thus the presumptive starter (and trust me, I’m going to flip a lid if I took a bunch of Jaden Rashada and Drew Pyne highlights and didn’t post them here and ASU pulls some last minute QB switcheroo shenanigans).
Trenton Bourguet was the backup to Emory Jones last year, and truth be told, I was a big fan of his. He’s an underrated quarterback, and I felt that ASU would have been better off last year with him as the starter. I can see why ASU would prefer a dual-threat quarterback, but Bourguet was a very solid pocket passer who did a great job of reading and picking apart defenses with his arm.
in my opinion, Bourguet’s best attribute last year was his ability to handle pressure. It’s fairly common for a young quarterback to play worse under pressure, but Bourguet did an excellent job last year against pressure. He’s absolutely fearless in the pocket, and would often sit in the pocket to make the throw even with a free rusher bearing down on him—that is, he knows he’s going to take a big hit, but he would stand in the pocket to make the play anyway (health and safety be damned):
Bourguet never panicked under pressure, and was always acutely aware of where his checkdown was, and where the pressure was coming from:
Here Bourguet does a great job of throwing to the space vacated by the blitz, a decision he only had a split second to make before being blown up:
The following clip needs to be prefaced with “new scheme, new year”, but I thought that Bourguet did a really good job last year of being in sync with his receivers. Here he does a great job of hitting WR Elijhah Badger on the timing route:
Another strength of Bourguet was the touch he was able to put on his throws. Bourguet gets blown up on the following play, but not before lofting the ball up in a spot where only his receiver can grab it:
Bourguet had great placement on his throws in the short-to-intermediate range. Here he zips in a throw just over the outstretched hands of the linebacker:
Although Bourguet is great at picking apart a defense on short-to-intermediate throws, he was less stellar in taking the top off a defense, and rarely completely deep throws down the sidelines. In the following play, the ASU offensive line first struggles to give Bourguet the time in the pocket he needs to let the play develop, , and his nice throw is negated by a penalty:
Here Bourguet again takes a deep shot, but he overthrows his receiver for an interception:
And finally, because I took this clip I figure I should include it, it should also be noted that Bourguet is a wily trickster. Here he puts his Emmy actor skills to work:
Should something happen to Bourguet, with Rashada and Pyne out with injuries, the presumptive backup is Jacob Conover. I only saw limited action from Conover, but his arm strength on throws was lacking and he struggled to fit balls in to where they needed to go against Fresno State:
I don’t want to spend too much time trashing Conover though, because generally if you’re down to your 4th string quarterback, you can expect some trouble.
The ASU run game on Saturday will likely be the Cam Skattebo show. Skattebo, a transfer from Troy Taylor’s Sacramento State, was the Big Sky’s 2022 Offensive Player of the Year (Big Sky First Team RB in 2022). The easiest comparison I can give to Cal fans here is that Skattebo is a lot like Isaiah Ifanse; also an FCS transfer—Montana State—and the Big Sky First Team RB in 2021 (Ifanse missed most of 2022 with a serious knee injury).
Like Ifanse, Skattebo has a hard-nosed style of running: he’s looking to lower his shoulder and run through tacklers. Skattebo does a great job of keeping his legs churning forward on contact to pick up extra yards:
Although Skattebo is not extremely fast, he does show nice cutting ability to avoid tackles:
Skattebo is an extremely versatile player (and we’ll delve into this more later), but he can run, pass, catch, kick, and pretty much everything you can think of on offense.
The following clip shows Skattebo’s versatility as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, but also his fantastic balance and ability to stay upright after contact:
As a playmaker, ASU made sure to get him heavily involved in the gameplan against USC. He would frequently take snaps from the QB position (or wildcat snaps), although I am pretty sure that ASU put this on tape to set up a number of other variations in the future:
Skattebo’s hard running style was great in short yardage situations. Here’s an example of a designed run play from the wildcat where Skattebo uses his running back as a lead blocker:
Of course, that lead blocker is RB DeCarlos Brooks, the transfer from Cal. Brooks is a good blocker, and he runs with a similar power-RB style, trying to run through defenders:
RB DeCarlos Brooks is also a viable receiving threat out of the backfield, a quality that seems important for ASU RBs this season:
There is also the true freshman RB Kyson Brown, a running back with considerably more speed than the other two, and who has the ability to get to the edge and break off a big run down the sideline with his speed. Here Brown makes a nice cut to avoid a weak USC arm tackle:
We can expect to see a lot of power running and wildcat snaps from Skattebo this game, as ASU will lean heavily on Skattebo to make a play.
ASU actually has some underrated receivers, that I feel have gone unnoticed due to subpar quarterback play in the past few years. Chief among them is the tight end Jalin Conyers, who has a chance to go in the mid-to-late rounds of the NFL Draft. Despite his large frame (ASU lists him at 6’4” 270 lbs), he’s primarily a receiving tight end, with great hands and solid contested catch ability as a result of his large frame:
Because of limitations at quarterback, ASU typically relies on a a short passing game to supplement their run game, and consequently, YAC (yards after catch) ability is a priority for ASU receivers:
ASU’s top receiver is WR Elijhah Badger. He’s a playmaker, and ASU will design plays just to get him the ball in space to make things happen. He’s a versatile recevier and can line up all over the field. He’s a long, rangy receiver with a large catch radius, good hands, and also possesses good YAC ability:
Although his lack of top end speed and burst might limit him at the next level, Badger is a contested catch specialist, which is great for the quarterbacks he’s played with:
ASU also picked up a great addition in the transfer portal in WR Xavier Guillory, another standout Big Sky player in 2022 at Idaho State. Guillory was Second Team All-Big Sky (behind Idaho receivers Hayden Hatten and Jermaine Jackson, who Cal saw two weeks ago). Guillory clearly had a great connection early on with Jaden Rashada, and was Rashada’s top target in their first two games. Guillory has the speed to get behind a defense and runs crisp routes, both in the slot and out wide (like Badger). Although he does suffer from concentration drops from time to time, he does a good job of tracking the ball in the air and making the adjustment for contested catches:
I think Conyers, Badger, and Guillory all have the potential to play at the next level, but due to circumstances beyond their control, the ASU receivers get no outside media attention.
Lined up out wide is ASU’s deep threat receiver, Andre Johnson, although he hasn’t had much chance to showcase those skills.
Finally, there’s the slot receiver Melquan Stovall, who transferred from Colorado State after transferring from Nevada (the younger brother of Melquise Stovall, the Pitt WR who transferred from Hawaii after transferring from Cal).
Stovall is most frequently targeted on routes across the middle of the field:
ASU does actually have a very strong receiver room that’s largely gone unnoticed, and they’ve excelled despite poor quarterback play. It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg question—are they good at adjusting to poor throws because of the QBs they play with, or did they recruit receivers with these talents to compensate in the first place (e.g. Guillory was also good at adjusting to subpar QB play at Idaho State)? In either case, the receivers are not the limiting factor on this offense.
You probably thought I was going to talk about the kicker—Cal transfer Dario Longhetto—here, eh? He’s a good kicker (and my standards on this have been lowered to anyone who can reliably kick a 30 yard FG), but I wouldn’t write a section about him here. Instead, I wanted to show the creative ways ASU used their special teams to get an edge against USC.
As we saw in the RB section, Cam Skattebo would frequently take wildcat snaps and run the ball himself, often using RB DeCarlos Brooks as a lead blocker. So on a 4th down in ASU territory, when USC saw Cam Skattebo on the field, they quickly pulled their punt return team and put the defense back on the field. And then Skattebo did this:
That’s a pretty good punt. And then on another 4th down deep in their own territory, they showed that same look. Except this time, RB Cam Skattebo made a pretty nice throw to WR Elijhah Badger over the middle of the field (and a nice catch there too):
Now this is a team that uses special teams as a weapon.
ASU has the most underrated receiver room in the conference, and a dynamic playmaker at running back. They recruit really well, even if they haven’t retained all their stars (WR Johnny Wilson is currently the top receiver on #5 FSU, WR Ricky Pearsall is lighting it up at Florida, RB Chip Trayanum is in the rotation at Ohio State, LB Eric Gentry is a featured linebacker at USC, etc). It’s clear that this year’s team is being held back by QB play, and you can’t expect much in that department if you’re down to your 4th string quarterback—but the room was probably limited in the first place if Jaden Rashada was earning the start as a true freshman. However, with all that said, I also think Trenton Bourguet is an underrated quarterback, and he showed a lot of promise last year. He may still be banged up, but I do think that ASU has the pieces in place for a great offense in the future… but probably not this year. Hopefully Cal can figure out their offensive woes, as they will probably not be this favored in a game again this season.
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