On Saturday night, the Arizona State defense allowed only 13 points against an explosive offense in Northern Arizona, but there were many unsettling moments for the Sun Devils in the process.
Sophomore quarterback Case Cookus finished with 369 yards and a touchdown pass for NAU. Cookus and his receiving corps, led by juniors Elijah Marks and Emmanuel Butler, had their way on the perimeter against ASU’s secondary. Marks and Butler were able to create separation from sophomore Kareem Orr and senior De'Chavon Hayes for most of the game.
ASU’s defense left Cookus a clean pocket for almost the entire game, with pressure rarely making an impact. The Sun Devils not only failed to force a turnover, but only produced one sack which came during the fourth quarter with the game out of reach.
That’s an alarming sign for head coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson.
“They were slide protecting seven-to-eight man protections. So, it was tough,” Graham said. “We did some good things with some TFLs (tackles for loss). We were very simple. That was probably the least amount of pressure we’ve ever ran in a game. I don’t know how much I like that, but it was good. We said we weren’t going to blitz until they scored a touchdown, so we didn’t.”
On Cookus’ only scoring throw, Marks easily beat Texas transfer Bryson Echols on an outside go-route for 87 yards early on in the fourth quarter.
Right before the end of the half, Cookus nearly recorded a rather unlikely touchdown pass. The NAU signal-caller heaved a deep pass that bounced off of Orr’s chest that could have been intercepted or knocked down, but instead ricocheted into Butler's hands. He was then pushed out of bounds by Hayes right before he broke the plane of the end zone.
Then, on the first play of the second half for ASU’s defense, Cookus found Butler again for 39 yards. Butler and Marks combined for 292 of NAU’s reception yards as Marks hauled in eight catches for 174 yards and Butler notched seven receptions for 118 yards.
Only a few plays later, junior Spur linebacker Marcus Ball was ejected for targeting, further complicating matters for ASU's coverage abilities. Ball read a swing pass from Cookus to running back Jabril Taylor, but launched into his hit. That triggered the first targeting penalty in the Graham era, which means Ball will have to sit out the first half of next week’s game against Texas Tech.
After Ball was taken out of the game, sophomore Tyler Whiley filled in at Spur and took a few plays to adjust to the first meaningful game action of his career.
“I thought Marcus (Ball) was playing good when he was in there," Graham said. "That was really difficult, too, that was our first targeting foul we’ve had since I’ve been here. So, that was difficult. Obviously, Christian (Sam) going down, but that was a very bad penalty on him that hurt him.”
Without the presence of senior field safety Laiu Moeakiola, who was held out with a lingering hamstring injury, the secondary was noticeably missing a spark in the back end. Moeakiola dressed and participated in warmups, but his status for next week's contest against Texas Tech is up in the air.
Not only was Moeakiola missing from ASU’s defense, but senior linebacker Salamo Fiso and senior defensive tackle Viliami Latu did not play as a result of a disciplinary measure. Latu will be back for Texas Tech, but Fiso’s status is still undetermined.
“It was just the first game, you know, just playing out there with some new guys,” sophomore safety Armand Perry said. “Some new guys got to get a rhythm and feel for the game. We’re just going to go back to the drawing board, and watch what we did tonight and correct it.”
ASU’s coaching staff has known about Moeakiola, Fiso and Latu's statuses since training camp, so its has had plenty of time to prepare for their absences heading into Saturday night. With that being said, the loss of vocal communicators at each level of the defense showed throughout the course of the game.
“It is stressful, because Laiu (Moeakiola) and Salamo (Fiso) and even Ami (Latu), those guys are guys with vast experience who are communicators,” Graham said. “So, that’s one of the reasons why we were as simple as we were, because we wanted to make sure we didn’t beat ourselves by having mental mistakes and assignment errors.”
ASU’s linebacking corps, without Fiso, did not leave the game unscathed. In the first quarter, junior Christian Sam appeared to injure his ankle while pursuing a screen play, and after the game, Sam was seen in a walking boot.
In Sam’s place, however, senior linebacker Carlos Mendoza held his own. He finished with five tackles, including combining on a tackle for loss with Hayes. Mendoza’s role will be something to keep an eye on as Sam’s status is monitored.
“There wasn’t a lot of panic. Carlos was ready, prepared,” Graham said. “Coach Patterson had him prepared. We had just cleared Khaylan Thomas, so we were getting ready to get Coach Patterson warmed up. They responded well.”
ASU used Latu inside and outside, and he created penetration on the inside gaps on multiple running plays throughout the game, including one play that netted a nine-yard loss for the Lumberjacks.
Wren, meanwhile, had four tackles, with two of those coming behind the line of scrimmage. He played inside at tackle, but also rotated at end as well.
After Texas Tech defeated Stephen F. Austin in its season opener 69-17 on Saturday, there should be plenty of offensive fireworks inside Sun Devil Stadium next week.
“I thought we did a good job, you know,” Perry said. “They got a couple of 50-50 balls, but I think we played pretty solid. Like I said, we’ve just got to go back to the film and just get ready for Texas Tech.”