For the second straight week, Arizona State was forced to overcome early lapses in offensive tempo and rhythm against an opponent it expected to dominate en route to a 34-10 victory over the New Mexico Lobos.
After entering the fourth quarter tied 21-21 with FCS foe Cal Poly on Saturday, the Sun Devils faced similar struggles against New Mexico as they sustained just one offensive drive lasting longer than two minutes in the first half.
ASU relied on a strong performance from a defense that spent more than 36 minutes on the field Friday night to bail out an offense that experienced limited spurts of effectiveness but lacked the consistency it was hoping to find with the start of conference play looming next week.
Aside from a 65-yard scoring run from Lobos’ running back Tyrone Owens, the ASU defense limited New Mexico’s offense to just 3.06 yards per play.
“Defensively, I thought we really were dominating," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "I just thought the majority of the game we were in great run pursuit. They broke a big run, I don’t know what that was, but other than that I thought we did a good job there.”
Despite being on the field for more than 21 of the 30 minutes in the first half, ASU’s defense held New Mexico’s triple option attack to just 140 total yards on 41 offensive plays, which helped keep the Lobos off the scoreboard before halftime. The Lobos averaged just 3.4 yards per play in the first half, and a linebacker unit led by redshirt junior and leading tackler Salamo Fiso (10 tackles) continually gave the Sun Devil offense every opportunity to pull away from the Lobos.
“I can tell you, I’m really tired of the triple option," Graham said. "But, obviously, I thought we were a lot more prepared. Laiu (Moeakiola) has been the MVP for two weeks, he’s been absolutely incredible. I thought Jordan (Simone) played really well as well. And (Tashon) Smallwood has been dominating inside. Obviously (Demetrius) Cherry has been steady, (Edmond) Boateng is playing his best football."
A year after senior wide receiver D.J. Foster torched New Mexico for 270 all-purpose yards, sophomore Demario Richard broke the ASU school record for receiving yards by a running back in a single game with 151 receiving yards as he finished with 255 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
"He (Demario) is one the hardest working guys on our team," Graham said. "He has probably matured more than anyone on the team. It means something to him, he wants to be great. He runs with an attitude and he runs through the tackles. He finishes off runs and he’s a competitor. I know there are not that many running backs that can say they had a night like that, that’s pretty impressive.”
Richard’s total was boosted by a 93-yard fourth quarter touchdown reception that helped the Sun Devils squash the Lobos’ comeback hopes, but it took ASU awhile to establish an identity offensively. The Sun Devils went three-and-out twice on their first two possessions of the game, and when the offense finally did sustain a drive, it couldn’t muster a touchdown in a first and goal situation from the Lobos’ one-yard line.
A 17-play, 74-yard drive lasting 5:13 culminated in a 22-yard field goal from junior kicker Zane Gonzalez that gave ASU a 3-0 lead, and again, ASU relied on its defense to prevent the Lobos from seizing momentum clearly still available for the taking.
The Lobos responded to ASU’s first scoring drive with a 15-play, 62-yard drive of their own, but a 35-yard potentially game-tying field goal attempt from sophomore kicker Jason Sanders sailed wide left and the ASU offense initiated its best drive of the night.
With time winding down in the first half, redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici engineered the team’s most efficient drive of the season as he completed all seven pass attempts on an eight play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped off by a 14-yard reception from redshirt junior wide receiver Tim White.
Bercovici entered the drive just 5-for-13 for 36 yards on the night, but kicked the offense into gear with a pair of back shoulder fade completions to redshirt senior wide receiver Devin Lucien and a critical 14-yard toss to sophomore running back Demario Richard on a wheel route out of the backfield.
The drive gave the Sun Devils a 10-0 lead heading into halftime, and sandwiched around the break, ASU’s offense was able to sustain consistency on back-to-back drives for the first time this season.
On the first drive of the second half, Bercovici kept the ball on back-to-back zone read plays to pick up an ASU first down, and three plays later, he targeted Richard on a wide open screen pass that went the distance for a 33-yard score to give the Sun Devils their first commanding lead of the night at 17-0.
After keeping New Mexico’s triple option in check for most of the night, the ASU defense had its first major lapse of the evening on the subsequent drive on the 65-yard dash up the middle from Owens.
Nevertheless, ASU’s defense responded with another three-and-out in its next appearance, and Bercovici finished off the Sun Devils’ third touchdown drive in four series by using his legs on an eight-yard scoring scamper that thrashed the Lobos’ upset hopes.
"That’s what coach Graham tells me: Everything about being a football player is being tough, and that’s what it takes to run this offense – whether it's five yards or 550 yards it doesn’t matter, being a threat in the run is a huge part of this offense," Bercovici said. "When you have great running backs like him (Richard) and a great offensive line, we just take what the defense gives us and we move on with the next play.”
A week after waiting until the fourth quarter to break loose from an overmatched foe, Bercovici and the Sun Devil offense began to take off in the second half when it allowed its rushing success to spur its passing game.
After failing to keep the ball on a zone read play in the first half, Bercovici capitalized on quarterback keepers three times on ASU’s first two scoring drives in the second half. The Sun Devils mixed in the quarterback runs with an intermediate passing game that allowed ASU to outgain the Lobos 293 to 155 in the second half.
“We’re a run, play-action pass football team, and it’s so important that he made those two runs," Graham said. "I think it was in the second half, the third quarter, that really opened up our offense and so I thought he did a nice job with that. On some of the pass plays, he can pull it down and run. There’s some opportunities with that so I think that’s one thing that we’re working with him to do better. We thought he could improve there.”
Bercovici finished the night 22-for-37 for 317 yards and three touchdowns, and after ASU passed on 20 of its 30 offensive plays in the first half, the Sun Devils rushed the ball on 20 of their 37 plays in the second half.
Even with more success in the second half, the Sun Devils never truly broke out of their offensive funk. The Lobos were able to start generating pressure on Bercovici late in the third quarter, and after notching a stop, they capitalized on a muffed punt by White.
After the turnover, a Lobos’ field goal cut ASU’s lead to 24-10, and New Mexico had one more opportunity to keep the game in check.
With ASU backed up near its own end zone, Bercovici dropped back, and was nearly brought down by two different New Mexico defenders for a safety that would have cut ASU’s lead to 24-12 and given the Lobos the ball. Instead, Bercovici evaded the rush and managed an incompletion, and on the next play, he found Richard for a 93-yard touchdown that sealed the game for the Sun Devils.
Anchored by assignment-sound defenders fixated on wiping out option responsibilities, Simone was pleased with the defense's ability to answer the call while the Sun Devil offense worked through its difficulties.
“Yeah triple option is, you know, like I said last week, it’s a very discipline-oriented style of offense and if one guy doesn’t do what he’s coached to do, you see what happens in that long run that they had and you know, they really only had one play tonight and we are very fortunate to have the coaches that we do every week," Simone said.
ASU returns to action on Saturday, September 26 as it will open its Pac-12 conference slate against USC at Sun Devil Stadium.