(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
For the first time this season, Arizona State will head on the road. Its opponent, UTSA, will welcome the Sun Devils to San Antonio for a rare Friday night game. ASU has loads of momentum coming into the game, as it just beat Texas Tech while putting up 68 points.
The big story from the game was undoubtedly running back Kalen Ballage tying a 26-year-old NCAA record with eight touchdowns, but younger guys such as Manny Wilkins (406 total yards, 2 TDs) and N’Keal Harry (72 receiving yards, TD) also emerged as legitimate offensive threats.
UTSA enters the game at 1-1, having lost its last game to Colorado State. The Roadrunners one victory was a 13-point win against FCS foe Alabama State. The past two years have not been too kind to them though, as they’ve gone just 7-17 since 2014.
ASU will have the opportunity to go undefeated in non-conference play for the first time since Taylor Kelly was connecting with Jaelen Strong on passes in 2014. Here are five questions to look for heading into the game.
5. How will going on the road affect the Sun Devils?
College football may have the most daunting road task of any sport, as most home stadium environments are unlike any other. Luckily for the Sun Devils, UTSA is not exactly one of the toughest places to play. Based off their history, the Roadrunners are fairly easy to beat no matter where they play, so it will mainly come down to talent over mindset.
The Sun Devils are 8-7 away from home over the last three seasons, but as far as road tests go, this one shouldn’t be as scary as some of their games in October and November.
4. Will Manny Wilkins have an encore performance after his first two games?
Wilkins has 698 total yards of offense over his first two games, surpassing almost everyone’s expectations. He has received the benefit of facing two subpar defenses, but he has clearly made the most of the opportunity and put the starting job on lock.
UTSA was 100th out of 127 teams in total defense last year, a step above TTU but far from elite. After proving a lot in his first two games, there’s plenty of reason to believe Wilkins can carry his strong play through all three non-conference games and into Pac-12 play.
3. Will the Sun Devils’ defense show any signs of life?
Their 2-0 record notwithstanding, ASU’s defense has not been pretty this year. Despite the small sample size, the unit is 120th in total defense, exactly where the Roadrunners were last year. Allowing 55 points is never a good day at the office, but when going against Patrick Mahomes and the Red Raiders, the mindset for ASU was likely centered on just salvaging a win, which they were successful in doing.
Veteran Salamo Fiso is still serving his suspension, but he may be back by Pac-12 play, and linebacker Christian Sam remained limited in practice. The defensive unit will get Marcus Ball back for the entire game, after he missed the first half on Saturday due to a targeting penalty.
UTSA has scored only 40 points in their first two games combined, so this could be the breather Keith Patterson and this defense needs before they face some strong Pac-12 offenses.
2. How frequently will the “Sparky” formation be used?
Against NAU and largely for the past few years, the “Sparky” formation, more commonly known as the “Wildcat,” was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t until ASU drove to the goal line against the Red Raiders in its second game of the season did it break out the formation. The success rate was perfect—6-for-6 to be exact—and it was responsible for six of Kalen Ballage’s eight touchdowns.
The amount of times head coach Todd Graham chooses the use a run-favored set could determine the answer to the question looming in everyone’s mind.
1. Can Kalen Ballage continue his torrid pace?
To score eight touchdowns in two consecutive games would be unheard of and almost impossible. Yet, to expect a big game from Ballage on Friday is far from crazy. Despite technically being the No. 2 running back in the offense behind junior Demario Richard, Ballage should still continue to see plenty of touches
UTSA has allowed 365 rushing yards in two games, good for 182.5 per game, and Ballage and Richard should be the two best running backs they’ve faced so far this season. Both should have ample chances to get in the end zone, even if Ballage doesn’t equal his performance from the previous week.
Prediction: Arizona State 45, UTSA 20