(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
While the rest of college football finished up the season’s opening, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham and team leaders Manny Wilkins, Kalen Ballage, JoJo Wicker and Sam Jones spoke about the Sun Devils’ 37-31 win over New Mexico State on Sunday afternoon.
Here is what the head coach and players made of their opening night performance.
While the entire group reiterated the importance of going 1-0, they addressed some of the issues that allowed the Sun Belt conference’s Aggies to hang around on Thursday night.
“I liked the feel of the first (quarter) of the game, and the third quarter. There were some sloppy things, but most of the things we can get corrected,” Graham said. “The biggest thing we have to improve on is negative plays, giving up (tackles for loss) and sacks.”
ASU surrendered seven sacks against NMSU, and only ran for 79 yards. On the 22 rushing attempts from players not named Ballage, the team netted zero yards. Overall, NMSU recorded 21 tackles for loss on the night.
A lot of those issues fall on a new look offensive line.
“Obviously, (we didn’t play) as well as we hoped we would; there are a lot of minor things to correct that look bad on paper,” Jones said. “…(They had) a lot of movement (up front). First game of the season (NMSU) are going to come out and do something you’ve never seen. It took us a little while to figure all of that out. But it comes down to us and executing our assignments.”
Defense Disruptive Despite Not Substituting
Defensively, Graham was happy about the big plays made by his two new cornerbacks against the Aggies, especially given NMSU playing a fifth year senior, Tyler Rogers, at quarterback. Joey Bryant had an interception on the opening drive of the night, and then Kobe Williams came up with a pick six to seal the game early in the fourth quarter.
Up front, the Sun Devils were, as advertised, getting into the backfield consistently and forcing Rogers to throw from the run. Pass rushers Koron Crump and Tashon Smallwood both had two sacks, while Wicker and fellow defensive end Alani Latu came up with a sack each as well; the team as a whole brought down Rogers six times.
“We were all digging, we all recorded at least one or two defensive sacks in the game. That’s a big thing,” Wicker said.
The defensive lineman also had an interesting take regarding the team’s decision to not rotate defensive players until late in the game. The same 11 players took every snap for ASU’s defense in the first half and most of the third quarter, despite the more than 100-degree heat.
“The only thing that gets you in shape for games, is games. In (not subbing), I think it’s one of the smartest things we’ve ever done because it gets us ready for this weekend, and helps us avoid fatigue,” he said.
Wilkins Explosive with Long Balls
When Wilkins connected with receiver Jalen Harvey for a 53-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, it gave the quarterback a new career long scoring toss, and pushed ASU’s lead to 14-0 within the first five minutes of the game.
“He caught it and turned the little burners on. Just happy to see Jalen look a little fast,” Wilkins joked about the play.
In the game’s second half, he again set his personal long touchdown pass when he hooked up with transfer wide out John Humphrey on a 60-yard throw, the ball traveling almost the entire distance in the air.
“We don’t throw 60 yards in practice. It was just the way it set up, the way it all happened. I just was throwing it to where he was going to be, and it just so happened to be that deep,” Wilkins said. “Based off formation I knew what they were going to line up in. That’s what they were doing all game.”
At times last season, ASU struggled to hit on big plays. Rediscovering those impactful moments was a big focus for the offense against the Aggies.
“It was encouraging to have those explosive plays,” Wilkins said. “I think going into the first game of the season, it’s a goal to win the explosive battle, and we did that.”
Ballage the Leader
Ballage led an otherwise dormant ground game on Thursday, scoring two touchdowns and picking up a key forth down conversion early in the second half.
To Graham however, Ballage’s play on the field was less impressive compared to his improvement in the locker room.
“I was really pleased with the leadership; I was really pleased with the locker room before the game,” Graham said. “Kalen Ballage is probably the most improved guy in the program from every area. Just to see him lead like that was incredible.”
With other team leaders flanking him at the press table on Sunday, Ballage displayed a little bit of his new level-headed approach when evaluated his team’s performance.
“We have to be able to execute on every play and every drive,” he said. “Sometimes you’re not going to be perfect, not even the New England Patriots are perfect all the time. It happens. We are just excited to continue to improve.”
While clichéd, Ballage preached the same message as his quarterback and head coach. Though it was not their most impressive night, ASU seems satisfied with the victory, the first one since last October.
As Wilkins put it, “It’s just about cleaning up the little things, but we got the ‘dub’ so it’s all good.”