After coming out to a blazing start in its first possession of the game against Northern Arizona, Arizona State’s fast-paced offense slowly fizzled out before the Sun Devils managed to light up Sun Devil Stadium late in the second half.
With all eyes on ASU first-year starting quarterback Manny Wilkins -- who hadn’t attempted a single pass before Saturday’s night home opener against the Lumberjacks -- the Sun Devils (1-0) squeaked past NAU (0-1) in a 44-13 win on Saturday night.
"We were really sluggish on offense," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "We started off with a bang, driving the down the field and scoring, but then we became very sluggish after that. I am very proud of Manny. There was that turnover, and he did some things that a first-time starter would do, but then he did a great job moving the ball and moving down the stretch. Our guys did a great job taking over in the fourth quarter and dominating.”
Wilkins finished the game with 20 completions on 27 attempts for 180 yards, with one interception and one rushing touchdown.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Brady White came into the game for one play -- a handoff to redshirt freshman running back Nick Ralston for a 12-yard touchdown score with 2:46 left in the fourth quarter.
Aside from the lingering questions of how Wilkins would perform in his first career start, ASU also had to deal with a variety of new faces across the board, including five new coaches, four new offensive line starters and multiple defensive position changes.
In addition to its own concerns, ASU knew going into the game its first week FCS opponent shouldn't be taken lightly. NAU was picked to finish No. 1 in the Big Sky preseason polls by both league coaches and media after finishing 2015 with a 7-4, 5-3 record in conference play.
The Lumberjacks kept it close throughout the first half, down only 10-3 at halftime in what could have been a 10-10 game going into the locker room if it weren't for a touchdown-saving tackle by ASU senior De'Chavon Hayes on NAU junior wide receiver Emmanuel Butler as the clock hit zero to end the second quarter.
But after NAU and ASU traded field goals to open the second half, the Sun Devils took control with six straight scoring drives.
“We just tried to be patient with the offense, we knew they were going to come out and shoot a lot of the gaps," ASU junior running back Demario Richard said. "We made a couple of adjustments at halftime and started being more patient with the ball and started to get out rhythm going, we started making big plays.”
Wilkins’ 13-yard rushing touchdown with 12:58 left in the first quarter was ASU’s first and only touchdown of the game until Richard's 2-yard touchdown score with five seconds left in the third quarter put the Sun Devils up 20-6. In ASU's following possession, freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry scored his first career touchdown -- a 34-yard rushing touchdown -- with 10:51 left in the fourth quarter.
ASU junior running back Kalen Ballage scored the Sun Devils' third touchdown off a 30-yard touchdown run with 8:10 remaining in the game.
Including the Sun Devils' late surge, ASU put up 456 yards of offense, 276 rushing and 180 in the air after averaging 34.5 points per game and 477.5 yards of offense per game last season. In the first half, ASU only had 169 yards of total offense, 71 yards through the air and 98 yards rushing.
“We will be fine, and I take complete accountability," Wilkins said. "Next week we will get rolling faster.”
The Sun Devils were able to move the ball fairly well down the field thanks to its offensive playmakers in Richard and wide receiver Tim White, but were unable to get back in the end zone until late in the game. White led the team with five catches for 95 yards. Richard had 19 carries for 78 yards.
“Tim White is a warrior," Graham said. "He is a guy you’re going to have to really tackle, but he did an incredible job. We got some hard yards on the ground but we struggled with some simple things like the slant in front. I thought N’Keal (Harry) showed up and did some big things with a touchdown. We showed up, got better every single snap and that is how you win a game. I like how we showed up and scored 34 points in the second half after only scoring 10 in the first. I am really happy with how we finished.”
Before ASU's offensive resurgence, the Sun Devils relied heavily on senior placekicker Zane Gonzalez.
The Lou Groza award preseason watchlist kicker made all three of his field goal attempts -- including a career-long 53-yard field goal to give ASU a 13-6 lead with 7:29 remaining in the third quarter. The field goal was ASU’s first 50-plus yard field goal since Thomas Weber accomplished the feat on Dec. 2, 2010.
"I am really proud of Zane," Graham said. "He did some really great things with a new snapper. Going four-for-four with a 53-yarder is awesome. We would have liked to score four more touchdowns rather than Zane kicking four more field goals, but he did a great job.”
Despite offensive struggles and defensive miscues, the Sun Devils improved to 27-0-1 since 1939 against teams currently in the Big Sky Conference.
Finishing last in the country in passing defense last season, the ASU secondary gave up 369 yards through the air with Butler leading the way for NAU with seven catches for 118 yards. Butler set the NAU record last year in receiving yards with 1,208 and tied the program record with 15 touchdowns.
NAU sophomore quarterback Case Cookus who won the FCS Freshman of the Year honors following a 2015 campaign in which he threw for 3,117 yards and 37 touchdowns, finished 23-for-33 for 369 yards Saturday night.
Cookus took advantage of ASU's depleted defense that was not only without senior linebacker Salamo Fiso, defensive lineman Viliami Latu and senior safety Laiu Moeakiola, but also lost junior linebacker Christian Sam and Marcus Ball to separate issues during the game itself.
Sam was injured midway through the first quarter and did not return. He was wearing a walking boot after the game. Ball was disqualified with 6:14 left in the third quarter due to targeting.
This also means Ball is out for the first half of ASU’s next game on Sept. 10 against Texas Tech (1-0) at Sun Devil Stadium. The Red Raiders beat Stephen F. Austin 69-17 in their home opener Saturday night.
“We were just playing our game," Richard said. "Every team goes through adversity, we’ve seen that this week with teams losing to teams they’re not supposed to. We just have to keep it between ourselves and speak positively. We came starting saying it’s your fault or your fault, just stay positive. There’s always going to be another play so if someone messes up we have another play, we will correct it on film. We have a big game coming up next with Texas Tech."
If the Sun Devils want to come out with a win next week at home, many improvements, especially on defense will have to be made. In the Lumberjacks' first possession of the game they put together a 10-play, 56-yard drive that got all the way down to ASU’s 19-yard line before they were stopped short on a fourth-and-one by sophomore safety Armand Perry.
NAU seemed to easily outplay the Sun Devils in the first half -- demonstrated by the only interception in the game coming from the hands of NAU sophomore linebacker Cole Sterns who picked off Wilkins on NAU’s 36-yard line with 7:32 left in the first quarter. Wilkins was 2-for-2 in the passing game before the interception.
“I have to have better ball security, I feel like I can’t make those mistakes when momentum is going," Wilkins said. "I will obviously get better there, I’m just really proud of the guys, really working and putting a dominating win in.”
After the interception, NAU cut ASU’s lead down to 7-3 after capping off an eight-play, 38-yard drive with a 25-yard field goal by freshman placekicker Griffin Roehler with 13:26 left in the second quarter. Gonzalez then answered with a 33-yard field goal of his own to cap a 12-play, 79-yard drive with 1:26 left in the second quarter to give the Sun Devils a 10-3 lead.