TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State’s 44-13 win over Northern Arizona on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium was as underwhelming as it was predictable.
The Sun Devils debuted four new starters on their offensive line, a new quarterback in redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins, and a revamped secondary. ASU also entered the season opener without starting safety Laiu Moeakiola (hamstring), starting linebacker Salamo Fiso, and starting defensive lineman Viliami Latu, the latter two being out for what coach Todd Graham said were either disciplinary or academic reasons.
ASU’s offense was both vanilla and sluggish, struggling to find a rhythm after an impressive, seven-play opening scoring drive on which the Sun Devils ran the ball all seven times. ASU led 10-3 at halftime, and 13-6 until running back Demario Richard scored with five seconds left in the third quarter. It was only in the fourth quarter that ASU pulled away by outscoring NAU, 24-7.
“The second half was more about what I expected,” Graham said. “The first half was a little nerve-wracking.”
In dissecting this performance, we’ll start with Wilkins. Graham said the Sun Devils came into the game with a simple game plan.
“We wanted to be simple with the offensive line,” Graham said. “We felt like we could run the ball and it would open up plays and we would wear them down, pound them down and eventually we would win.”
That made sense with running backs Richard and Kalen Ballage representing the strength of the offense. That duo and Wilkins combined for 223 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, but while Wilkins was effective with his feet, he struggled in the passing game with the speed of his reads and his decision-making, and there was no threat of a deep ball to loosen up NAU’s defense any further.
Maybe that was by design, but ASU will need more from its quarterback when it faces Texas Tech next weekend, and it will need more from the offensive line in front of him.
“It was about what you’d think with a new offensive line,” Graham said. “They were running some (line)backers through and we were staying on the double team instead of coming off; things that you can fix real easy.”
ASU may have found a future star in freshman receiver N’Keal Harry, who accounted for 65 yards of offense and a TD on five touches, showing flashes of the promise that made him such a big-time recruit.
The defense was a mixed bag. ASU gave up 425 yards, allowing 6.3 yards per play and some big plays that defined last season’s school-worst pass defense, but it held an FCS team that is favored to win the Big Sky Conference (and was ranked No. 18 nationally) to just 13 points. Despite an emphasis on forcing turnovers, ASU had none against NAU. Graham admitted he blitzed less than he ever has, but the Devils’ front seven recorded just one sack. That was supposed to be a strength.
Without Latu and Fiso it was hard to gauge those struggles, and the Sun Devils also lost linebackers Christian Sam to an injury and Marcus Ball to an ejection for targeting, so judgments are likely unwise until the Devils put all their personnel on the field. At the same time, more was expected of Devil backer JoJo Wicker as a designated pass rusher. Wicker was ineffective despite playing largely against single coverage.
“It was stressful because Laiu and Salamo and even (Latu), those guys have vast experience and they’re communicators,” Graham said. “That’s one reason why we were as simple as we were. We wanted to make sure we didn’t have mental mistakes and assignment errors.”
The lone, unabashed bright spot was kicker Zane Gonzalez, who was 3 of 3 on field goals, including a career-long 53-yard kick to move within two field goals of Luis Zendejas’ school-record 81, and within 12 of Dustin Hopkins’ NCAA record 88, set at Florida State from 2009-2012.
ASU has plenty of work to do, but it accomplished its primary mission in its season opener.
“We showed up, got better every single snap and that is how you win a game,” Graham said. “I am really happy with how we finished. It’s always a good start when you’re 1-0.”