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September 19, 2012There were many instances for Arizona State last weekend in Missouri in which one play could've made the difference between victory and defeat.
But while each part of the team took its share of blame for the loss, one group in particular seemed to shoulder the most responsibility.
Struggling throughout the game, ASU players dropped no fewer than a handful of passes, only coming up with a combined 16 catches with half that number from players listed as wide receivers on the depth chart.
Three days later the Sun Devils were back on the practice field Tuesday, still trying to figure out what happened Saturday.
"I have no idea, honestly," said ASU senior wide receiver Rashad Ross, who failed to come up with three or four catches he could have against Missouri. "Focus, it was off and our timing with Taylor (Kelly) was off too. I was disappointed."
Ross appeared to make a third down catch for a first down on ASU's first series of the game but the referees ruled the pass incomplete and the Sun Devil receiving core went downhill from there.
"I thought I caught it, when I went down, I got stripped, I thought I was down," Ross said. "It got me down in a sense."
Like Ross, ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander believed his unit suffered from a lack of concentration above everything else.
"It was a loss of focus," Alexander said. "I think overall, the details are what we are doing wrong. The energy out in the practice field has to be more consistent. That's where it starts with us."
Aside from the drops, Sun Devil receivers often haven't been on the same page as their quarterback. ASU coach Todd Graham attributed the misses to not practicing with the same intensity they play with.
"The reason why we have trouble with some of the timing in the passing game, and this isn't just last week, this is since Week 1, they were underthrowing some of the deep balls because all of a sudden on game day they're running at a different speed," Graham said. "You can't do that. You have to practice a timing offense full speed every day and that's just something that we have not mastered yet and we're getting closer."
Graham admitted his players weren't originally used to running their routes with the same speed in practice as they do when it actually counts. But if the new coaching staff's schemes are to work, the receivers have to give Kelly and redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Eubank a reference in practice to remember in games.
"This system is a timing, rhythm offense," Graham said. "Our rhythm passing game is the last to catch hold right now. It's been all run play action pass and those types of things. We need to get that going because it's the thing that really makes our offense go."
Over the first three games as a whole, junior Kevin Ozier leads all Sun Devil receivers with just seven catches.
Two of the names that have yet to record a reception this season are juniors Kyle Middlebrooks and Alonzo Agwuenu, but Alexander hopes to change that soon.
Admitting the staff will try to get Middlebrooks the ball in open space, Alexander said Agwuenu had a difficult time adjusting to the system but now is ready to go.
"He's been working extremely hard, the transition hasn't been easy but I'm trying to iron those things out," Alexander said. "It's time though, it's time for him to get on the field and learn on the job."
With no receiver stepping up and becoming a go-to-guy just yet, ASU will continue to shuffle its players until a group of guys begin to stand out.
"We're trying to define roles but it's about making plays," Alexander said. "If we have guys making plays, maybe they don't come off the field. It's not a fair game, it's a competition for opportunities. That's what has to happen."
Even though Kelly had to battle through his receivers' costly drops Saturday after just one drop combined in his team's first two games, the ASU quarterback isn't losing confidence in his targets. Instead, he tries to forget about each play as soon as it's over.
"You can't let that affect you, guys will start making plays," Kelly said. "If I do get down, it'll be even more of a negative. I have to keep encouraging the guys to focus in and I expect that if I throw it to him the next play, he's going to grab it."
Sutton rising to elite
Former Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson loved hyperbole. The 65-year-old was quick to proclaim just about anyone of name recognition an emerging star.
But while first-year Sun Devil coach Todd Graham also spreads kind words about opponents fairly openly, he is much more reserved about his own personnel.
So when Graham called ASU junior defensive lineman Will Sutton, "as good of a defensive player that I have ever been around and is not even close to as good as he can be," it meant something.
Through three games this season, Sutton ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss with five and second in sacks with three.
"I'm just working hard and playing how I practice," Sutton said. "I feel like I'm pretty good right now but I have to keep moving and get better every day."
That's probably the scariest thing about Sutton, the fact that everyone around the program seems to agree he is getting better every day.
"I really do feel like I am," Sutton said. "I'm trying to win, I don't like losing. Coming from a high school that wins, then coming here and feeling defeat, it's not a good feeling."
Against Missouri last week, Sutton recorded eight tackles, including a sack and a pass breakup. One play he didn't make, however, was in the first quarter when the lineman missed a tackle on third and goal from the six that lead to the Tigers' first touchdown.
"It sucks, but you know it's not all on you to do everything, it's a team sport," he said. "It hurts but you have to forget about it and move on to the next one."
While he admitted the loss stung because of how many mistakes the Sun Devils made, Sutton believes the team received a reality check and will be more motivated moving forward.
"You learn from losses more than wins, it is keeping us humble," he said. "We were 2-0 and some guys were already feeling like we did something. The loss got us back down to reality."
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