Arizona State junior running back Kalen Ballage had seven touchdowns during his first two seasons with the Sun Devils. On Saturday night, the junior from Peyton, Colorado emerged from ASU's 68-55 victory over Texas Tech with his name etched in the NCAA record books, tying former Illinois fullback Howard Griffith's single-game record of eight touchdowns set back in 1990.
Ballage amassed 185 total yards (137 rushing, 48 receiving) on just 15 total touches, but thanks to a short-yardage package designed by offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, Ballage capitalized on his opportunities to the tune of seven rushing touchdowns and one receiving score.
After Saturday's game, Ballage was joined at ASU's postgame press conference by all of his starting offensive linemen in senior left tackle Evan Goodman, sophomore left guard Sam Jones, junior center A.J. McCollum, senior right guard Stephon McCray and sophomore right tackle Quinn Bailey who paved the way for his record day.
“Pop warner, it happened, a lot,” Ballage said of his dominating performance. “But this is college football and that’s big. I just give all the glory to God, honestly. And these guys right here (his offensive line), every single one of them, they go to work. Every practice, every lift, everything we do they have been focusing and it shows. Tonight, what they did up front was actually amazing and that’s why I decided to bring all five of them up here because they deserve it.”
It was that kind of a game for ASU’s offense, which scored on nine of its last 11 drives -- with both of its empty possessions coming at the end of each half.
Head coach Todd Graham mentioned how offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has stayed committed to the run through the first two weeks, which looks like a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future.
“Ran 90 football plays at a pretty good pace,” Graham said of his offense's 68-point performance. “Our whole deal is our commitment to the run, but no, I thought Chip (Lindsey) did a tremendous job. We were very patient last week. You don’t get preseason games in college, so it’s a little challenging trying to practice against each other. There’s a lot of things you find out the first week, and we were very conservative.”
During ASU’s 44-13 season-opening win against Northern Arizona, Lindsey did not reveal many wrinkles of his playbook against the Lumberjacks.
Lindsey’s offense, led by sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins, stuck to bubble screens, quick outs, and run-pass options revolving around its mobile signal-caller against Northern Arizona. However, against Texas Tech, the Sun Devils brought out multiple looks it kept hidden against the Lumberjacks.
The Sun Devils relied on one formation in particular which revolved around Ballage that contributed to his record-setting night. ASU used a “Wildcat” formation on seven times Saturday, with the first five plays being direct snaps to Ballage that ultimately turned into scores.
The formation helped Ballage produce touchdown runs from two, four, seven and 75 yards out, with three 1-yard runs as well.
“Two or three weeks, something like that,” Ballage said of how long ASU has practiced its “Wildcat” package. “So we’ve been practicing that, just trying to fine-tune that.”
Another highlight of Lindsey’s version of the “Wildcat” formation: junior defensive lineman Christian Hill earned the first playing time of his career as a lead blocker for Ballage. Outside of Ballage's 75-yard touchdown run, Hill was on the field for all of Ballage’s scores inside the red zone.
Ballage's breakout performance early in the season sparked a sharp contrast to how the junior started the first two seasons of his career.
During his freshman year, Ballage struggled with strength and flexibility issues that kept him from seeing consistent time. Then, prior to his sophomore campaign, Ballage started his season with a mononucleosis diagnosis that forced him to miss the team's first three games.
“This year is amazing and honestly what feels even better is all that stuff is in the past and it’s really these guys,” Ballage said. “When you have injuries or illnesses you get down on yourself, you really do, and your confidence isn’t where it should be. These guys picked me up and helped me get to where I needed to be and I’m there now. They pick me up and told me after the season that everything is going to be ok and now we’re in a position to where we’re a good football team and we’re going to keep winning football games.”
From a scheme standpoint, Ballage's talents blend well with Lindsey's offensive principles. Not only can the junior running back dish out physical punishment, but his breakaway speed and large frame make him an enticing weapon to use in different ways.
“Kalen is a guy who is just now figuring out how powerful and explosive he can really be and I think tonight he began to scratch that surface really well,” Graham said.
With Richard and Wilkins combining for 164 yards on 40 additional carries, ASU used a successful rotation to keep Texas Tech off balance. Richard received the bulk of the carries in the second half once ASU established a double-digit lead, and Wilkins’ mobility left him a threat to tuck it and run when no Red Raiders' defender was called upon to spy him.
The eight-score night put Ballage in impressive company with Griffith, the Illinois back who accomplished the feat against an FCS opponent.
“I think it’s really interesting when you think about all of the things that transpired to make it possible,” Griffith said of his record-setting day in 1990. “You think about being down 21-7 against an opponent that you think you should be beating. And I’ve said this before, I don’t think that we had the respect for them that we needed, because anytime you’re playing an in-state team, there are going to be a lot of guys that feel like they should be playing in your spot.”
Griffith scored eight times in three quarters off 21 carries, while Ballage achieved the milestone on six less touches and against a higher-caliber opponent.
“To be honest, I really don’t care about it, you can ask these guys, I really don’t care about it,” Ballage said. “I want to win football games and that’s what this is about to me and that is what happened tonight and scoring eight touchdowns wasn’t a part of the plan at all, I just wanted to win the football game and we ended up doing that. I just wanted to contribute to the team in any way I can.”null