(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Arizona State answered some of their biggest preseason questions on their opening two drives. But it didn’t take long after for the Sun Devils to evoke those worries in the first half of their season opener against the New Mexico State Aggies.
Of all the uncertainties facing Arizona State football this season, none loomed larger than their decimated secondary. The unit, which ranked last in the country in pass defense in both 2015 and 2016, introduced four new starters on Thursday from a season ago.
On the first drive of the fall though, the defensive backfield came up with an interception.
Junior track and field convert Joey Bryant came up with an interception on the fourth play of the game, jumping New Mexico State receiver OJ Clark’s route, leaping to snag the Tyler Rogers pass at his own 39-yard-line.
Nine plays later, senior running back Kalen Ballage took a snap out of the dangerous “Sparky formation,” bulldozing his way to the pylon for the season’s first touchdown. Junior quarterback Manny Wilkins looked sharp on the first drive as well, completing all four of his passes.
After a NMSU three and out, Wilkins picked up right where he left off on ASU’s second drive. After connecting with sophomore wide out N’Keal Harry on the drive’s first play, Wilkins found a wide open Jalen Harvey running a post route over the middle of the field. Harvey took the catch in stride and never looked back on his way to the end zone for a 53-yard score; it was a career long TD toss for Wilkins.
NMSU grew into the half though, and capped a 13-play, 89-yard second quarter TD drive with an exclamation point. On a third and ten from the ASU 15-yard-line, Rogers lobbed a pass to the corner of the end zone, where Aggies senior wide receiver Jaleel Scott reached up with one hand and hauled in the ball, despite having a defender draped on his back.
JoJo Wicker blocked the ensuing point after attempt for the Sun Devils, but later suffered an injury and headed back to the locker room early.
ASU’s offense meanwhile went cold after the first two scoring drives. The Sun Devils first stalled inside NMSU territory, leading to a pooch punt from Wilkins. The team’s next two drives both resulted in three and outs.
Arizona State’s rushing attack never got off the ground in the first half hour. Despite facing an NMSU rush defense that ranked 118th in the nation last year, the Sun Devils averaged just barely over three yards a carry. NMSU averaged 3.8 yards a run.
The Aggies capped the half with another long drive, going 89 yards in 11 plays to draw within a point at the break. On the drive, Clark made three catches, and Rogers took a read-option himself into the end zone from a yard out to cut his team’s deficit to 14-13.
Even a long kickoff return from Ballage was wasted as the first half clock expired, with true freshman kicker Brandon Ruiz missing from 56-yards out on his first collegiate attempt.
At the end of the first quarter, ASU was leading 14-0, out-gaining the Aggies 159 to 40, and had five more first downs than NMSU. At halftime, New Mexico State is within one point, out-gaining the Sun Devils 249-217, and lead the first down battle 14-9.
ASU experienced a similar opening half to the 2016 season against Northern Arizona. That night, a sluggish pass attack and poor ball security allowed the Lumberjacks to hang around until the fourth quarter, when ASU outscored their neighbors from the north 24-7 to pull away for good.
The Sun Devils will need a similar second half turnaround tonight.