(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Only two words can be used to summarize Arizona State’s 68-55 win over Texas Tech on Saturday: Kalen Ballage. The running back had the game of his life, breaking the Pac-12 single-game record and tying the NCAA record with eight touchdowns. That is not a typo.
The general consensus was that Saturday night’s battle between the Sun Devils and Red Raiders would be a shootout. Based on the final score, that was an understatement.
Arizona State knew it would have its hands full both offensively and defensively against the fast-paced, high-energy Red Raiders team. Despite some occasional lapses, the young and relatively inexperienced ASU offense surprised many by pulling out all the necessary stops, led by Ballage’s record breaking eight touchdowns.
“I’m very proud of our team, great team improvement,” head coach Todd Graham said. “I don’t think I’ve been more proud of our guys…special win for our team.”
From lateral and flea flicker-esque passes to a plethora of direct snaps to Ballage in the wildcat formation, ASU and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey had the Red Raiders’ defense on their heels all game.
“It was an awesome game,” Wilkins said. “We just executed our game plan and went 1-0 again this week.”
It was nearly a given that the TTU offense and their quarterback and potential Heisman Trophy candidate Patrick Mahomes would put up points. The question of whether ASU’s offense would be up to the task was a persistent one in the lead up to the game, however it was answered early and often Saturday night as ASU continuously responded to efficient drives by Mahomes and company and took a 37-34 lead into halftime.
Listen: Manny Wilkins, Kareem Orr, De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes speak at ASU’s postgame press conference
Wilkins looked loads better than he did the previous week against NAU. He connected with Ballage and N’Keal Harry for touchdowns and stayed interception-free throughout the game. His 351 passing yards wasnt’ too shabby either.
“I thought that he had a giant growth between week one and week 2,” Graham said. “He stepped up big in a big-time game.”
Listen: Todd Graham discusses ASU’s 68-55 victory at his postgame press conference
Harry made his presence known early after a somewhat quiet performance as a receiver in his first game, and he ended up catching six passes for 72 yards. Redshirt sophomore Jalen Harvey was also much more present, catching four balls after not having any receptions against the Lumberjacks.
The real star of the game though was undoubtedly Ballage, whose video-game numbers made some yearn for the return of the NCAA Football franchise. The last player to score six touchdowns in a Pac-12 game was Anthony Davis for USC in 1972. Howard Griffith was the most recent player to score eight touchdowns in a NCAA game, doing so for the University of Illinois in 1990.
“He (Ballage) and Demario are really improving their game,” Graham said. “Demario’s leadership and they both just really maturing as football players and Kalen is just scratching the surface of his potential. Both those guys I’m just so impressed with.”
Six of his eight trips to pay dirt came on direct snap carries near the goal line, a play the Red Raiders just could not seem to figure out even when they knew it was coming.
He also took a pass from Wilkins 39 yards to the house and bullied the Red Raiders defense on the ground throughout the night. TTU had the fourth worst run defense in the country last year, and it wasn’t hard to see why as the Sun Devils finished with 301 rushing yards.
It was a welcomed start to the season for a guy who has battled injuries and illness the past two seasons.
“When you have illness and injuries happen you get down on yourself, you really do,” Ballage said. “These guys (referring to his offensive line) have helped me be where I need to be. They are picking me up and telling me that everything is going to be okay.”
Special teams, specifically punter Matt Haack, also played a valuable role in the win. Haack averaged 55 yards on his three punts, and his second one eventually led to a safety. Even Wilkins joined in on the fun with a pooch punt that was downed at the one-yard line.
The unit’s strong play aided a defense that experienced its expected shortcomings and allowed more 15+ yard plays (10) than they would have liked. The Red Raiders also averaged more than eight yards per play, but in the end their defense didn’t make as many plays as the Sun Devils’ did.
Gump Hayes trademarked the victory by intercepting Mahomes and returning it to the goal line, which in turn led to the Sun Devils opening up a three possession lead. He later thwarted TTU’s unlikely comeback attempt in the final minutes with his second pick of the game.
“The second half we just came out there with that fire that we needed,” Hayes said. “I feel like in the first half we were more conservative, and Coach Graham preaches in the locker room that we have to tighten up, so we just came out there with a game plan and stuck to it.”
Though even with Hayes’ pair of picks, it was evident that nobody eased the pressure of ASU’s defense more than Ballage, whose meteoric junior-year rise may be only in its beginning stages.
“To be honest, I really didn’t care about it (the record),” Ballage humbly remarked. “I just want to win football games.”