Column: Sun Devils open up playbook, light up scoreboard on record night

Arizona State revealed a lot more of its offense and defense in a thrilling win over Texas Tech on Saturday that also showed it just may have its quarterback of the future and an offensive coordinator who knows how to use him.

Laughter filled the room during Arizona State's post game press conference. 

Following his team's 68-55 win over Texas Tech -- a score which set a school record for most combined points scored in a game -- ASU head coach Todd Graham offered deadpan sarcasm when asked about his team's expanded playbook. 

"Oh, really?" Graham asked, feigning incredulity. 

Yes, this wasn't a game against FCS Northern Arizona, which ASU dispatched a week earlier in a 44-13 season-opening win that was much closer through nearly three full quarters, at 13-6 before the Sun Devils pulled away late. 

This was a Texas Tech opponent that scored 50 or more points in six games last season and features one of the nation's top quarterbacks, junior Patrick Mahomes

ASU knew the Red Raiders' offensive potency would require much more of its scheme to be put on display Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium, and maybe even force it to show a little something up its sleeve. Graham and his coaching staff hadn't needed to do so against the Lumberjacks, but on this night, they played all the big cards they'd been saving.

Junior running back Kalen Ballage proved to be an ace in the hole. He scored eight touchdowns, tying an NCAA record in the process. Six of Ballage's scores came out a Wildcat formation in which he'd never been used previously.  

As impressive as Ballage was, even on a night in which he scored more points than any Sun Devil before him, it was the performance of sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins that was the Sun Devils' trump card, and it's one they could be able to play again and again in years to come. 

In his first college start against a Power 5 opponent Wilkins completed 28 of 37 passes for 351 yards and two touchdowns. One of those completions was a 39-yard flea flicker that resulted in Ballage's lone receiving touchdown of the night. 

"Our plan was obviously more diverse and I thought it was solid," Graham said. "Our guys had something to say tonight and they did. I was very proud of them. It was a pretty intense locker room. I kind of liked it. I could have maybe played one play."

The most impressive thing about Wilkins' performance? He didn't throw any interceptions, or anything that came near to being one. He managed the offense tremendously well, with the Sun Devils having just five negative yardage plays on a night in which they fired off a total of 90 plays from scrimmage.

"I thought he had a giant growth between week one and week two and I'm not surprised," Graham said. "It's just like anything, the guy hadn't played in a game in how long, two or three years, something like that. It's quite a ways to have not played. It's a little different. Those bullets are flying, man."

The Sun Devils appeared to be out-gunned entering the game in the quarterback battle with Mahomes coming off a season in which he led the Big-12 in total offense. Wilkins, meanwhile, hadn't even started a game against a major conference school. Having to do so for the first time on a night he'd be directly compared to one of the nation's top producing quarterbacks seemed to be a daunting task.

Coming off a season which they finished last nationally in passing yards allowed, the Sun Devils had to figure that Wilkins might be called on to keep pace with Mahomes and the Red Raiders in a potential shootout. Who would have thought that Wilkins would be able to hang with the Texas Tech gunslinger?

"Manny made great decisions, threw the ball very effectively, used his legs," Ballage said. "Like I said, there's so many different components to this offense. You have to respect our receivers, you have to respect our running backs, you have to respect our tight ends -- they made plays tonight -- and you have to respect Manny. He has the ability to run with his legs, he made people miss and hurdled yet another person tonight. That opens up our offense. When you try to stop one thing, another thing is opened up."

First-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey took a different approach than the one that ultimately bludgeoned Northern Arizona into submission. In that game he ran the ball until the Lumberjacks couldn't physically handle it any more, and then kept doing it, a total of 46 runs on 73 plays from scrimmage. 

Against the Red Raiders, Lindsey asked Wilkins to spread the ball around more early in order to splay open an opponent he'd ultimately dissect with the precision of a scalpel. The Sun Devils threw the ball 22 times and ran it 24 in the first half, before a 2-1 ratio of 15 passing plays and 29 carries in the second half.

ASU finished with 652 yards of total offense, achieving a great balance of 309 on the ground to go with 351 through the air. Ballage was unstoppable, Wildcat package or otherwise, with 137 rushing yards on just 13 carries for a 10.5 yard-per-carry average and seven rushing touchdowns. That's about as efficient an effort as could be. Count Graham among the onlookers impressed by Lindsey in his first big regular season game at the offensive controls as a Sun Devil.  

"We're running our offense," Graham said. "That's our system....I knew he was a great person, a great teacher. I didn't want to convince him of what we were going to believe in. I felt like I wanted to get back to the kind of pure form of our offense that goes all the way back to 2006, 2007, 2008. What we're trying to do, if you want to win -- I know everybody likes all the fancy plays -- but you have to run the ball. You have to be a physical football team. I knew he and I believed the same way because we come from the same coaching family. And he's just getting started." 

It wasn't only the ASU offense that was forced to show greater range of its scheme and play-calling on the night. The challenge of trying to limit Mahomes led Graham and defensive coordinator and play-caller Keith Patterson to try just about everything in their defensive arsenal.

The Sun Devils started the game using three man fronts and dropping eight players into coverage, an approach rarely if ever used by Graham in his four-plus seasons in Tempe. It didn't work. Mahomes wasn't able to get loose on the ground, but he had enough time in the pocket to carve ASU up, which included touchdown completions of 59 and 75 yards in a span of just over three minutes of game action.

When the Sun Devils played soft and conservative on the final defensive series of the first half, in which the Red Raiders drove 75 yards for a touchdown in just 1:24 and nine plays, Graham and Patterson had seen enough. They made some personnel changes, getting sophomore Tyler Whiley off the field at Spur and using a combination of senior Laiu Moeakiola and junior Marcus Ball along with a much more aggressive approach in the second half. 

The change worked. Mahomes had 353 passing yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in the first half but just 187 passing yards and one touchdown with two interceptions, both of which went to senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes. Texas Tech converted 5 of 7 third-down opportunities in the first half, but just 1 of 6 in the second half. 

"We were rushing three most of the time (in the first half) and dropping eight," Graham said. "We were struggling a little bit. They were doing some creative thing with their backs and stuff. We were trying to get some pressure and hit the guy a bit. I think we confused [Mahomes in the second half]. He threw the ball right to us twice and that helped us. I was very proud of the adjustments. That's a challenge now. I can tell you offensively you're not going to have a bigger challenge than that, the way those guys operate that. It's going to help us down the road with teams in our league that are very similar.

"That game was frantic with the amount of adjustments being made, just back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. We were running out of ideas. I love it though. I absolutely love coaching because I love that part of it, you have to adjust and figure things out."

An impressive defensive performance it was not from ASU, but it performed better in the second half when it needed to. There are questions about its secondary that linger, to be sure. The Sun Devils can't give up that many yards and expect to win most games. But they won this one, and found out they just might have a very capable quarterback and a second elite running back to pair with returning 1,000-yard rusher Demario Richard

The Sun Devils also set themselves up for a potential run at 4-0 with the win, as they'll next face a UTSA team that lost to Colorado State on Saturday, before returning home to play a Cal team that lost to San Diego State, 45-40. 

“We have a chance," Graham said. "We just have to get better, get some things cleaned up, get people healthy and correct a lot of mistakes. There were a whole lot of mistakes tonight that were made because of mental errors. We just have to be more consistent, but it doesn’t matter because we are 2-0 and we just beat a very good Texas Tech team.

"This was a big game tonight. It was either going to move us forward, or it was going to be tough. And it moved us forward. [Wilkins] stepped up big time in a big time game. His first big game, I thought that was big time."


Sun Devil Source Top Stories