Column: Sun Devils keep cards close to vest in win over Lumberjacks

Fans saw Arizona State get a comfortable win in its first game of the season, but may still not have a great feel for the team, and that's seemingly by design.

Arizona State put its updated stadium on full display in Saturday's season opening 44-13 win over Northern Arizona, but not its football team. 

This wasn't like last season, when the Sun Devils had to throw everything and the kitchen sink at Texas A&M and still didn't have much success. We knew right at the start of the 2015 season exactly what some of the glaring problems were with ASU's team. 

A year ago at this time it was clear the Sun Devils weren't able to handle a talented pass rush with their offensive tackles. They'd spent all off-season hyping the offensive weapon they'd be getting in De'Chavon Hayes only to see it backfire in their face. ASU coach Todd Graham touted the rhythm passing that would be on display with the transition to quarterback Mike Bercovici. It didn't happen. 

Defensively, the Sun Devils gave up 13.0 yards per completion to the Aggies and 425 yards of total offense. The problems that plagued ASU throughout the season were either strongly hinted at or completely unveiled in that opening game 38-17 loss. 

This season? It's going to take at least another week to see what this ASU team will really look like in 2016. The reasons for this are plentiful. 

With a transition to first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and new starting sophomore quarterback sophomore Manny Wilkins, it didn't serve much purpose for the Sun Devils to show a lot of their playbook. They knew they wouldn't have to. The physical advantage was going to bear itself out over the course of a full game. 

ASU coaches knew this and didn't show any nerves when their team held a narrow 13-6 advantage through a majority of the second half. They instead smartly stuck to the script. 

"We wanted to be simple with the offensive line," Graham said. "We wanted to run the ball. We wanted to win the game. We felt like that we could run the ball, that it would open up plays, that we would wear them down, pound them down, and eventually we'd win. But we expected to score more points than we did in the first half."

Indeed, ASU finished with 276 rushing yards, 123 of which came in the fourth quarter as the Lumberjacks started to burn out. Running the ball 46 times will do that to an FCS opponent. 

Even Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers admitted that his team was outmatched physically following the game, which concluded with ASU out-scoring the Lumberjacks 24-7 in the fourth quarter. 

"I think the longer the game went on, the more they started to wear us down," Souers said. "They had some excellent ball carriers and some real quality personnel on the perimeter and their offensive line was very physical. They were some big humans out there. I think that took a toll on us in the third and fourth quarter. It kind of felt like the wheels started to fall off. We were trying to do some things with our offense to shorten the game."

The Sun Devils scored quickly on their first possession of the game, firing off seven run plays in a row and playing at breakneck pace to score in just 2:02. It didn't seem like it would be difficult to put a big number on the scoreboard based on that drive but Wilkins threw a bad interception on the Sun Devils' second possession. 

After the turnover, Lindsey downshifted. He never put the Sun Devils into a higher gear the rest of the night and instead just let the team's physical advantages be showcased on overdrive. 

Wilkins went 20 of 27 for 180 yards but it was mostly screens and quick game throws. There were some missed opportunities down the field, but for the most part ASU was concerned with operating efficiently and avoiding additional turnovers or negative plays. There was no need to open it up and that means it'll be another week until Lindsey feels any obligation to do so. 

"I thought he did a good job managing the game," Graham said of Wilkins. "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. I'd like for him to be a little more careful than doing all that hurdling stuff. You probably can't stay healthy doing all that stuff." 

Even defensively, the identity of the Sun Devils isn't in any way established after this game. Graham relinquished complete control of the play calling duties to defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, which resulted in NAU being totally surprised by what it saw. But will that prove to be the new normal, or a fluky one-off designed to keep the next opponent and subsequent foes challenged in their preparations for the Sun Devils? 

“Well actually they did the opposite of what we thought they were going to do," NAU quarterback Case Cookus said. "We thought they were going to bring a lot of pressure, which they didn’t at all. They were really pretty much scared of these two guys right here (NAU wide receivers Emmanuel Butler and Elijah Marks). More scared of Emmanuel (Butler) during the game because they double teamed him the entire time, and that’s when (Elijah) Marks started to get the one-on-one matchups and started burning them really bad. I think it was at the end of the game I think they were double teaming both of them, we were just kind of running the ball, but I looked out and saw two safeties over both of them. They kind of switched up the game plan on us, made us try to run the ball a little more.”

Graham clearly disagreed with Cookus, and understandably so. The Sun Devils played a conservative Cover 3 zone defense much of the night, in stark contrast to what we've seen from Graham as a play-caller in his four years at the helm. Double-teaming Butler? Not nearly as much as just having a middle safety over the top who could get to the sideline when Cookus heaved some of his deepest throws down the field. 

Actually, the Sun Devils kept it very plain on defense, blitzing more infrequently than they've done in almost any game in years. It's another reason we're not going to get a true sense of what they'll really be like until they face some adversity. Will they revert to the ultra-pressure tactics favored by Graham, or mix it up more under Patterson. Texas Tech is going to be much more revealing in that regard. 

“I thought our defense played extremely hard and conservative," Graham said. "We had a lot of fourth down stops and did a lot of other things to stop the NAU offense. I thought we had a stellar performance with the number of guys we had out."

ASU had a full month to prepare for not having two of its key defensive players, starting senior linebacker Salamo Fiso and senior defensive tackle Viliami Latu, each of whom was suspended for what Graham termed unspecified disciplinary issues. It also knew for at least several weeks that senior safety Laiu Moeakiola was unlikely to play due to a hamstring injury. 

But prepared though they may have been, the Sun Devils aren't really the the defense they will be this season without those players on the field. And that's especially true when junior WILL 'backer Christian Sam is added to that group, as Sam was after he got knocked out with an apparent ankle injury in the first quarter. 

Once junior Spur Marcus Ball was disqualified due to the first targeting call of the Graham era, the Sun Devils were putting a base defense on the field that was really only about half of the players they'll having playing when at full strength. Then on top of all that, they kept things about as generic as we'll ever see. 

"I thought we were very simple," Graham said. "That's probably the least amount of (blitz) pressure we've ever ran in a game. Which, I'm not sure how much I liked that. But it was good, they hadn't scored. We said we weren't going to blitz until they scored a touchdown, so we didn't."

"Keith called it all. He did everything. I know you see me down there, I'm critiquing all of his bad calls which I'm really good at."

That was about the only thing revealed by ASU on the evening. We'll find out just how good the Sun Devils are all right, it just won't happen for at least another week. 

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