(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)

Throughout this fall’s preseason camp, Arizona State portrayed renewed optimism in their running game. With the senior duo of Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard returning behind a rejuvenated offensive line, there was a strong belief the unit could progress after its 112th national ranking last year.

“If we can establish the run, I think that allows us to create more big plays,” ASU offensive coordinator Billy Napier said last week, keying in on the running game as a point of emphasis for the start of the 2017 season.

Thursday’s season opener against New Mexico State however, failed to show any improvement on the ground. The Sun Devils gained just 79 rushing yards. On 40 carries. That’s less than 2 yards for every run attempt.

Not since last year’s blowout loss at USC did ASU gain so few yards running the ball.

Head coach Todd Graham tried to explain away the ground game difficulties postgame on Thursday. He diagnosed NMSU’s scheme on the inside as the cause of the rushing problems after the 37-31 win.

“We got to run the ball better,” he admitted. “They were doing a lot of stunting, twisting, and doing all that stuff inside…that was causing the guys problems in the run game.”

Regardless, New Mexico State gave up more than 240 yards on average, per game, last year. Not once did they hold an opponent under 150 yards running. In addition, the Aggies started underclassmen at both interior defensive line positions in Tempe on Thursday.

Yet, as a team, ASU was once again plagued by a lack of production when it came to moving the ball between the tackles.

Ballage had a strong night individually for the Sun Devils. As the team’s feature back, he excelled out of the direct-snap “Sparky” formation, a role that helped him score 14 touchdowns last year. Early in the first quarter, he scored his first TD of this season on a 7-yard run out of the package.

In the second half, he moved the chains on a fourth-and-two after taking another direct snap, extending a drive that led to a field goal. On the team’s next possession, Ballage scored a more conventional touchdown on a 20-yard, off-tackle run, using his speed to get around the edge of the defense and into the end zone.

“Any chance I have with the ball, I try to take care of it to the best of my ability,” he said.

Beyond Ballage however, the Sun Devils running contributions dried up. On 18 carries, Ballage had 79 yards rushing. ASU’s other 22 attempts totaled a net of zero yards.

Part of the problem was due to an early injury to Richard. He ran just one time, for a loss of four. He left the game after with what was reported to be a left leg injury, an injury Graham implied was minor during his press conference.

Graham also pointed to his team’s ability to find other ways to pick up short chunks of yardage as a positive, suggesting he sacrificed plays up the middle for those on the outside.

“We were coming out with perimeter runs and perimeter pass,” Graham said. “I don’t care if we don’t have one recorded run. When we are throwing those spots and all those things, those are sweeps. That’s what we need to stick to.”

Often times, receivers John Humphrey and N’Keal Harry caught outside screen passes near the line of scrimmage Thursday night, giving them the chance to use their athleticism to turn the play up field. Ballage made two catches of his own out of the backfield, showing off his versatility once again.

But those plays didn’t help ASU’s offense stay on schedule or maintain manageable down and distances.

“We started off the right way, then we started drifting a little bit. We had three series in a row where we were second and long, and then we had a first down that was called back on a (holding) penalty,” Graham said. “That’s four straight series in the second quarter where we went really quiet.”

Napier warned that bad distances for first downs could cause problems.

“We want to be efficient on first down and try to keep third down manageable,” he said during his press conference last Sunday.

One game in, and his offense is failing in that self-proclaimed important department.

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