TEMPE, Ariz. — Kalen Ballage said Arizona State had been practicing a version of the Wildcat formation for two or three weeks, trying to fine-tune it before the Sun Devils met Texas Tech in what they felt was a swing game for their season.
“I knew it was going to be a big part of [the offense],” Ballage said. “I didn’t know it was going to be that big.”
It was record-breaking big.
The Sun Devils’ junior running back set school and Pac-12 records (rushing and total) and tied an NCAA record held by Illinois’ Howard Griffith with eight touchdowns (seven rushing) in a 68-55 win over Texas Tech on Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium. Ballage also tied an FBS record for touchdowns in a quarter with four in the second period as the Sun Devils improved to 2-0. He finished with 137 rushing yards on 13 carries and 48 receiving yards on two catches.
Six of Ballage’s eight TDs came via direct snap in a highly creative game plan devised by first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. Ballage’s other scores came on a 39-yard flea flicker from quarterback Manny Wilkins and a 75-yard run that gave ASU a 65-48 lead with 9:11 left in the fourth quarter.
“We kept coming to the sideline and talking to each other, saying ‘Their offense is great,'” Ballage said of the Red Raiders. “They put on a great show but our defense got a couple of stops and we tried to capitalize on it as much as we could. We got out there and said ‘we are going to have to be unstoppable every time we touch the field’ and that’s what we ended up doing.”
Ballage had only 15 touches in the game, making his touchdown haul both efficient and reminiscent of some performances he had as a kid.
“Pop Warner, it happened a lot actually but this is college football and that’s big,” said Ballage, who insisted on having his offensive linemen accompany him to the postgame interview where he set up extra chairs for them. “I just give all the glory to God and these guys right here. Every single day we go to work — every lift, every practice, everything we do, we’ve been focusing and it showed.”
Health issues limited Ballage last season when he ran for 653 yards and four TDs. He missed the team’s big non-conference game against Texas A&M in Houston when he was diagnosed with mononucleosis the day before kickoff and was forced to fly home.
“When you have injuries or illnesses, you get down on yourself, you really do, and your confidence isn’t where it should be,” he said. “These guys picked me up and helped me get to where I needed to be and I’m there now. Now we’re in a position to where we’re a good football team and we’re going to keep winning football games.”
Ballage admitted he had no idea he was setting records seemingly every time he touched the ball on Saturday.
“I really don’t care about it,” he said. “I want to win football games and that’s what this is about to me and that is what happened tonight and scoring eight touchdowns wasn’t a part of the plan at all.”
Arizona State knew it could rely on Ballage and Demario Richard this season while Wilkins grew into his role as the new starter and four new offensive line starters learned their jobs. Even so, Graham hadn’t seen all that he expected to see from Ballage — until Saturday.
“Kalen is a guy who is just now figuring out how powerful and explosive he can really be,” Graham said. “I think tonight he began to scratch that surface really well.”
Eight touchdowns in 15 touches? That’s a touchdown rate of better than 50 percent. If Ballage can get 25 to 30 touches a game, imagine how much more he can scratch his way to the top of the Pac-12… and carry the Sun Devils with him.