(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
After doing virtually nothing on the ground for nearly three quarters, Arizona State’s running game found a breakthrough, and a put-away score, late in the third quarter of their 37-31 win over New Mexico State on Thursday night.
On a second down from the NMSU 20-yard-line, senior running back Kalen Ballage took a handoff through the right side of the offensive line, and turned on the jets to race into the end zone. It was his second score of the night, and put ASU ahead of the Aggies 30-13 in the final minute of the quarter.
But, the Sun Devils’ rushing game had been more than sluggish to that point. Prior to the TD run, ASU had just 60 rushing yards on 28 carries, a deficiency that contributed to a closer-than-expected start to the school’s season opener. They finished the game with only 79 yards on 40 carries (1.98 yards per carry).
After a rocky second quarter that allowed New Mexico State back into the contest, ASU manufactured back to back scoring drives coming out of the locker room.
On the first possession of the second half, the Sun Devils trudged their way up field, converting on a fourth and two—Ballage moved the chains on a direct snap run from the “Sparky formation”—before stalling on the next set of downs and settling for a 52-yard field goal from true freshman kicker Brandon Ruiz, the first of his career.
The Sun Devils defense came up with a three and out on NMSU’s ensuing possession, their first of the half, getting the Sun Devils the ball back at their own 40.
On the drive’s first play, Wilkins had time in the pocket to look deep downfield, where speedy receiver John Humphrey was running a vertical route down the sideline. Wilkins, as he did on his long first half TD pass to Jalen Harvey, threw a well-placed deep ball, letting Humphrey run under the ball to make the catch and run it into the end zone to extend the ASU lead to double digits.
Early in the fourth quarter, sophomore cornerback Kobe Williams came up with a pick six for the Sun Devils, jumping an out route and bringing it back 49 yards to the house to push the ASU lead to 37-13.
NMSU mounted a late comeback bid later in the fourth, starting when sophomore running back Jason Huntley broke a couple tackles on a 49-yard touchdown scamper. On the night, the Aggies ran for 151 yards, and gained 549 of offense.
Later, Huntley took a screen pass out of the backfield and ran untouched into the end zone for a 23-yard score. The Arlington, Texas native finished the night with 84 yards on five carries and two total touchdowns.
On the final play of the night, NMSU receiver Jaleel Scott, who made a miraculous one-handed TD catch in the first half, brought in another contested catch from 29 yards out. He finished the night with eight grabs for 149 yards in addition to his two scores.
Highly-touted transfer Blake Barnett made his Sun Devil debut with just over eight minutes remaining in the game. His cameo started brightly, connecting with sophomore receiver N’Keal Harry on a screen pass with his first attempt. But, the Alabama transfer kept a read option play on second down, getting planted in the backfield before firing his third down try incomplete.
On Barnett’s second drive, the redshirt sophomore picked up a first down on a 12-yard toss to John Humphrey, but was later sacked to end the drive. On the night, Barnett completed his two passes for 21 yards.
True freshman Eno Benjamin also played in his first collegiate game in mop-up duty in the game’s final minutes. The four-star prospect took four carries for only three yards however.
The win improves the Sun Devils to 6-0 in home openers under head coach Todd Graham; it was also the coaches’ 40th win with the program. The team is now 13-3 in regular season non-conference games since 2012.