(Photo: Jannah Din/WCSN)
TEMPE – If the goal was to squash every opponent like an annoying fly that won’t go away, the Arizona State Sun Devils accomplished their mission Thursday night.
The Sacramento State Hornets were the fly, nagging at the Sun Devils on the opening drive before Robert Nelson blocked a field goal. Todd Graham was the fly swatter, rallying his troops behind the big special teams play and dominating every aspect of the game from the first offensive drive through the final whistle in a 55-0 beat down.
“I don’t think I could’ve had (the game) go better than it already did,” Graham said after the win.
The Sun Devils (1-0) shut out the Hornets (0-2), who are still looking for their first points of 2013. After an opening drive that took up half of the quarter and converted on four consecutive third downs at one point, Sacramento State looked like they might belong. But the Sun Devil defense responded by not allowing another first down in the entire opening half of the season.
The problems were clear early. A team known for taking shots down the field, Sacramento State instead played it safe and found openings underneath. Sun Devil boundary corner Osahon Irabor was playing soft, preparing to turn and run, and the Hornets took advantage, with receiver Morris Norrise converting three of the four third-down conversions while Irabor guarded him.
“I thought we played slow,” Graham said. “I don’t know what it was, and we’ll figure it out. We were sluggish…give (Sacramento State) credit for that (opening drive).”
Graham did find a bright spot in the early success of Sacramento State, saying he was “happy (Arizona State) was challenged,” and that it was nice to see the Sun Devils respond the way they did.
On offense, Taylor Kelly was flawless. Kelly tied a career best with five touchdown passes and threw for 300 yards even. I saw a quarterback who was poised in the pocket, made great progressions and read every play correctly.
“It’s his second year in the system, and it’s a tough system to play in,” H-back Chris Coyle said. “The biggest thing is he understands the playbook … he’s comfortable spreading the ball out and making sure the defenses can’t key in on any one of us.”
Coyle got that part right. Eight different Sun Devils caught passes from Kelly, including the much-hyped junior-college transfer Jaelen Strong.
Curiously, Sacramento State insisted on stopping Marion Grice so much that they never adjusted defensively to the Sun Devils air raid approach. Grice was held in check, but the overuse of a two-deep defensive system left the middle of the field exposed. When the Hornets finally went away from a two-deep, they moved to a Cover Zero, with no safeties deep. I still don’t understand that one.
Upon further review, maybe we didn’t hype Strong enough. The sophomore had six receptions for 58 yards and a gorgeous touchdown reception. What really impressed me about Strong was his savvy while running routes. He never ran short of the first down marker, he read zones brilliantly and most importantly, he knew when to break off of his route, stop it short or extend it based on the looks he was receiving.
Kelly and Strong had chemistry from the opening snap, and that should have Sun Devil fans salivating for more. Strong is the real deal, a game-changing receiver on a team loaded with dynamic athletes.
Another offensive player that thrived was backup H-back De’Marieya Nelson. Yet another junior-college transfer, Nelson caught the first touchdown of the game on a 16-yard seam route. But that wasn’t all. Nelson had the first special-teams tackle of the season for Arizona State, took handoffs from the tailback position and, most impressively, read a scramble from quarterback Michael Eubank in the third quarter and de-cleated a Hornet defender when Eubank decided to tuck and run, springing the backup for a short touchdown run.
Defensively the big question is with linebacker Chris Young. Young left the game with an apparent knee injury and it looked like it had the potential to be serious. We didn’t learn much about the injury after the game, but Graham said he didn’t think it was catastrophic.
“I think he’s fine,” Graham said. “He had a little tweak. I don’t think it’s anything serious. He was up and walking around, had it iced a little bit. We’ll get it checked in the morning and see where he’s at.”
Finally, Zane Gonzalez and Dom Vizzare both had adventures. Vizzare needed a few lucky bounces to get his average punt up over 40 yards per attempt, but he appears comfortably in control of punting duties, since Graham insinuated the team is trying to use redshirts on most of the freshmen this season. Gonzalez hit half of his four attempts. This could be seen as either worrisome or a non-issue. He is young, and his mechanics didn’t seem that far off. He clearly made a mistake in his fourth attempt, over-compensating for a missed second attempt and pulling the ball back too far. Let’s give him a chance before we panic here.
Still, when your biggest concern is the field goal kicker and one (apparently) minor injury, life is good. For the Sun Devils, life is great. They better enjoy it, because a real football team comes to town next week, and Wisconsin won’t roll over and play dead when the Sun Devils attack.