Instant analysis: Mixed results in ASU's season-opening win

Arizona State raced out to a fast start with impressive offensive tempo on its first series, but struggled to find a rhythm for much of Saturday's season-opener against Northern Arizona.

Arizona State started its season with a 44-13 blowout win of NAU but the victory was not as impressive as the score indicates. The Sun Devils led 10-6 in the third quarter before their offense found its groove in the second half.

ASU’s offense scored on its first drive of the game but then floundered the rest of the half only leading by a score of 10-3 at the intermission.

Sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins was not sharp in his first start but aside from a bad interception on the Sun Devils’ second possession, he did a good job of protecting the ball and not making jeopardy throws. He was a pedestrian 9-for-14 with 71 yards passing in the first half, but was productive as a runner early in the game. At the half Wilkins had rushed nine times for 58 yards.

As the game wore on Wilkins' play improved but his decision-making was more conservative than decisive. It seemed like a few times he made the wrong decision on the read-option but overall his play was more similar to Taylor Kelly than Mike Bercovici with his effectiveness in the run game.

Wilkins finished the game completing 20-of-27 passes but totaled just 180 yards. His stats could have been better if freshman N'Keal Harry’s 34-yard score was ruled a pass and not a run but White also benefited from some shovel passes to senior receiver Tim White that counted as passes. Wilkins did lead the team in rushing with 89 yards.

ASU was solid on third down, converting on eight-of-13 attempts, and only went three-and-out once against NAU. It produced 456 yards, much of which came in the second half. ASU averaged 6.2 yards per play but averaged 11.8 yards per play in the fourth quarter.

The Sun Devils produced 15 explosive plays and only had five negative plays. That's not a great ratio but with so many players making their first start it's a respectable ratio and something they can build upon.

Overall it was basically an average first start for Wilkins. He will need to make quicker and better decisions moving forward. He protected the ball for the most part and made plays with his feet. He is clearly the starter as we only saw freshman backup Brady White only take one snap in garbage time.

The offensive line was mediocre for much of the night. Senior Evan Goodman, the group's only true returning starter, played well but had some missed blocks that led to pressure on Wilkins. ASU kept its starting group in the game until it was out of hand. The unit struggled at times in the run game when you consider the level of competition it faced. Through three quarters, junior Kalen Ballage had nine carries for 26 yards and junior Demario Richard had 13 rushes for 46 yards. That needs to improve for ASU to have a winning season. 

Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s game plan and play calling was not dratically different than what we saw under Mike Norvell the last four years. ASU only targeted the tight end once and the middle of the field was rarely attacked. ASU’s running backs only had four receptions. 

ASU’s wide receivers made plays when given the ball in position to do so. Tim White played well with nine receptions for 95 yards and a lot of those yards came after contact. Harry totaled four receptions for 31 yards and had his 34 yard ‘run’ for a score. The receivers' blocking was noticeably improved versus NAU.

In the end for the offense, it ended up in the boxscore looking like a good first game but there is a lot to improve on and more than likely ASU will need to do that fast if it wants to be able to hang with offensive powerhouse Texas Tech next week.

ASU’s defense seemed more like the 2015 edition, which is not good. ASU surrendered 369 passing yards and only had one sack and created zero turnovers. It surrendered 11 explosive plays and created nine negative plays.

ASU was mainly it is base defense much of the night. In the first half it used its nickel package without much success and stayed more in its base look as the night progressed. Overall it used the nickel on six plays and allowed three explosive plays.

The defense started the game without senior stalwarts linebacker Salamo Fiso, safety Laiu Moeakiola and defensive tackle Viliami Latu. It also lost linebacker Christian Sam in the first quarter to an ankle injury.

The defensive front stopped the NAU run but that is something that should have been a given. Junior college transfer Koron Crump and junior Alani Latu played Devil backer. We saw them moved around more than we saw the Devil in previous years.

Sophomore defensive end Joseph Wicker had a relatively quiet night, racking up five tackles but he failed to record a tackle for loss or sack. He needs to be an impact player this year for ASU to have a good year.

Sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr had a rough night albeit against a good NAU receiving group. Marcus Ball was somewhat effective before being ejected for targeting in the third quarter. Sophomore Tyler Whiley replaced Ball and stayed in the game but was shaky at best. 

It is hard to take a lot away from how the defense played with missing so many key players. In the end, it allowed only 13 points, but we saw ASU fail to get pressure on the quarterback and let open receivers get behind defensive backs which plagued ASU’s defense last year. Some of the issues were personnel related and others are correctable, but the lack of pressure put on NAU’s quarterbacks has to be concerning. 

NAU max-protected much of the night according to the coaches after the game. The Lumberjacks were expecting to be pressured more than they saw from ASU. So the lack of pass rush can be attributed somewhat to how NAU schemed ASU but you would also expect the Sun Devils to be able to generate more pressure with four rushers versus a FCS level program.

ASU will face a potent offense next week in Texas Tech. Todd Graham’s teams have not fared well against Air Raid offenses. We did see less pressure tonight than we typically have seen but with the overall lack of pressure and turnovers the defense created and some of the breakdowns by the defensive backs, it will be interesting to see how ASU defends next week. 

The offense played better as the game wore on but if it starts slow again next week ASU might needs its quarterback to win the game, and it is far from a certainty that Wilkins is up to the task after tonight’s performance.

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