(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Arizona State will kick off its 2016 football season against in-state rival Northern Arizona, who plays in the FCS. It will be a very different season opener for the Sun Devils, who don’t enter the season with the lofty expectations that they had last year. They won’t face the added pressure of a nationally televised game against a prominently ranked team like Texas A&M.
The Lumberjacks, however, are no slouch. They finished 7-4 last season and feature the reigning STATS FCS Freshman of the Year, quarterback Case Cookus. They are also ranked No. 18 in the preseason FCS poll. ASU played a fellow FCS team last season, Cal Poly, and struggled, winning just 35-21.
As an overachieving FCS team comes to town for the second straight season, here are the top five key questions for ASU in the game.
5. How will the secondary fare in the first game of its “rebound” season?
The Sun Devil secondary let up the most passing yards in the FBS last season, which was partly due to multiple injuries within the group, but can also be attributed to poor play from the players they had out there.
Safety Armand Perry is back and healthy after missing 10 games last season, and former linebacker and defensive standout Laiu Moeakiola will be likely be opposite of him at Bandit Safety. Those two, along with sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr, who led all freshmen in interceptions last year, will be keys in turning around the fortunes of the secondary.
The weak point of last year’s defense will have a tough task against Cookus, who threw for 3,117 yards and 37 touchdowns last season, and his receiving core. If they are able to keep them in check, the Sun Devils should cruise to victory, but if not, they will be on upset alert.
4. Will the Sun Devils fare better than last year against an FCS team?
Last year’s victory against Cal Poly put a scare in fans, who had trouble trusting a team that entered the fourth quarter tied against an FCS team. This year, with less pressure, ASU has the opportunity to make the season opener a lot more memorable than last year.
NAU played Arizona last year and lost 77-13 so it is absolutely vulnerable against heightened competition. The Sun Devils have a new starting quarterback and many other new starters, so last year’s close win should be a non-factor when it comes to their matchup against the Lumberjacks.
3. Is the wide receiving core as good as advertised?
ASU had a good season catching the football last year, but it should be even better this year. Breakout star Tim White comes back as a top option for the quarterback, while Cam Smith, who missed all of last season with injury but emerged as a strong talent in 2014, is back in the fold. Five-star recruit and true freshman N’Keal Harry is the most anticipated part of this receiving core. Harry will start week one and could become a star sooner rather than later.
First year wide receivers coach Jay Norvell should be a huge asset to the starting three with his leadership and experience. He previously coached at Texas and Oklahoma and his impact is already being felt by the wideouts.
Since NAU’s secondary is far from strong itself, the game may turn into a shootout, in which case the receivers will play a big role. If ASU’s receiving core truly is as good as advertised, it should have the edge in that department.
2. Who will be the starting quarterback? Will multiple starting quarterbacks get in the game?
OK, so this is a two-for-one, but the top question on everyone’s mind throughout fall camp is who the starting quarterback will be: Manny Wilkins or Brady White. Bryce Perkins’ neck injury has taken him out of contention and will sideline him for at least half of the season.
Right now, it looks like Wilkins will start the opener over White. Wilkins has practiced with the first team almost every time and Todd Graham has repeatedly told the media that they should know who the starting quarterback should be by now.
What could still happen is that White may play at least some of the second half. If Wilkins struggles or if Graham just wants to see what they have in both players, White will get some playing time on Saturday.
An announcement will come Thursday or Friday, but Wilkins will likely get the first opportunity to show the coaching staff what he has, but don’t rule out both quarterbacks getting an opportunity to play.
1. Just how many points will the Sun Devils score?
As mentioned earlier, the Lumberjacks allowed 77 points against an Arizona offense that was towards the middle of the pack in the Pac-12 last year. It is a defense that doesn’t play the caliber of offenses that ASU possesses, regardless of the quarterback questions that surround them.
Not to mention, the NAU defense isn’t even among the FCS’ best. It allowed almost 35 points per game last season, which means ASU should have plenty of opportunities to put up plenty of points.
The two-headed monster at running back of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage should receive the majority of the chances on the offense during at least the early portion of the game. They combined for 14 touchdowns last season and could each have a big game in the season opener.
Final Score: Arizona State 52, Northern Arizona 20