(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
After being tested by an FCS opponent for the second straight year, Arizona State (1-0) can breathe a momentary sigh of relief after holding off Northern Arizona’s early charge en route to a 44-13 victory in the season opener.
The biggest question entering the contest was how effective Manny Wilkins would be under center. The redshirt sophomore had never thrown a pass in a game before being named the team’s starter on Friday.
Wilkins opened the game strong, leading the Sun Devils on a seven play, 44-yard drive and capping it off with a 15- yard rushing touchdown, the first of his career. He finished with 89 rushing yards on 14 attempts.
“Very fierce [QB] competition in the spring,” head coach Todd Graham said. “It was very close. We’ve got a lot of confidence in Brady [White] as well, but we just felt like over the body of work that he was the guy that elevated the other guys around him.
“I thought he did a good job managing the game. He made one bad decision throwing the interception but I like how he responded to that. I liked his demeanor on the sideline throughout the whole time, he was very positive.”
Through the air, however, the offense failed to get in rhythm for the duration of the first half, as Wilkins completed nine of his 14 attempts for just 71 yards and an interception. Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard also struggled through two quarters, picking up a combined 33 yards on 12 carries.
Much of the running game’s first half ineptitude can be attributed to the play of the revamped offensive line, a group that lacks experience. In particular, guards Sam Jones and Quinn Bailey, both redshirt sophomores, struggled to create any lanes for Ballage and Richard inside.
But things picked up for the offensive line in the second half, paving the way for five different players to score rushing touchdowns.
“It [the team’s performance] was about what you would think with a new offensive line,” Graham said. “Just simple stuff, they were running some backwards through and were staying on the double teams instead of coming off, stuff like that, things you can fix real easy.”
Twelve of Arizona State’s 44 points came via the leg of Zane Gonzalez, who now has 74 career field goals, good for No. 19 on the NCAA all-time career list. His second of three makes came from a career-long 53 yards out, though he did miss an extra point in the fourth quarter.
NAU entered the second half down by seven, courtesy of the passing game and quarterback Case Cookus. The ASU secondary allowed a total of 369 passing yards, including nine plays of 15 yards or more.
“I thought we did a good job,” safety Armand Perry said. “They got a couple of 50-50 balls but I think we played pretty solid. Like I said, we’ve just got to go back to the film and get ready for Texas Tech.”
To make matters worse, the Sun Devils were without projected starter Laiu Moeakiola due to a lingering hamstring injury as well as Ami Latu and Salamo Fiso due to disciplinary reasons, then lost starting linebacker Christian Sam, who did not return, early in the game.
“Ami will be back next week, and we’ll see on the other one [Fiso],” Graham said.
Sam, a junior, finished second on the team in tackles in 2015 with 96. He went into to the locker room in a walking boot following the game.
Linebacker Marcus Ball was ejected late in the third quarter for targeting, the exclamation point for just how depleted this predominantly new defensive unit had become over the course of the game. Because of the nature of the penalty, Ball will be forced to sit for the first half of next week’s game against Texas Tech.
On the other side, the Lumberjack defense held Chip Lindsey’s offense to one touchdown until the end of the third quarter, when Demario Richard finished off an 89 yard, 15 play drive with a two-yard touchdown run to add some much-needed insurance.
Richard and Ballage steadied out as the game progressed, finishing with a combined 134 yards on 29 carries to accompany two late touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Nick Ralston also added a rushing score late in the fourth quarter on his only carry of the game.
“We were just playing our game,” Richard said. “Every team is going to go through adversity. We saw that this week when a couple of teams lost to teams they shouldn’t have lost to but we just have got to keep it in between ourselves and speak positively and not go at each other.”
True freshman N’Keal Harry scored his first career touchdown in the fourth quarter on what was ultimately ruled a 34-yard rush upon review. Although Wilkins wasn’t credited with what initially appeared to be a passing touchdown, the first-time signal caller fared moderately well in his debut, completing 20 of his 27 attempts for 180 yards and an interception.
“When adversity strikes, you’ve just got to keep bouncing back,” Wilkins said. “We’ll look at the film and go from there.”
Regardless of the many hiccups Todd Graham’s 2016 team experienced in its first crack at live football, the team walks away from week one victorious. Still, the Sun Devils should take little comfort in that fact, as there is plenty to address before Kliff Kingsbury and Texas Tech travel to Tempe next Saturday.
“Teams watch film, so if they see us give up something, you can expect to see that next week,” Perry said. “Texas Tech is an air-raid type of team, so we’re just going to celebrate this win tonight and then tomorrow just get back to work.”