The story of the ASU's 68-55 victory over Texas Tech was the eight-touchdown breakout performance of junior running back Kalen Ballage, but there is a case to be made for sophomore Manny Wilkins as the game's MVP.
When your offense scores 68 points and you throw for 351 yards, it's probably unfair to label the quarterback a game manager but in the context of this game, he was and he played well. Wilkins completed 28-of-37 passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Wilkins contributed 55 yards on the ground including another highlight reel hurdle. Wilkins probably needs to be more cautious in the open field, but his running ability gives ASU a quarterback who can extend plays and break big runs.
ASU had zero turnovers in the game, and it also had zero three-and-outs on the night. The Sun Devils were 9-for-16 on third down and they consistently moved the ball all night. In total, ASU ran 90 offensive plays, accumulating 652 yards. The offense had 12 explosive plays and only five negative plays. That ratio is not noteworthy in and of itself, but only five negative plays out of 90 snaps demonstrates how well offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey called the game and how well his offense executed on the night.
For the first time we charted successful plays. Over 50 percent of the yardage to make on first down for ASU was deemed successful. Over 70 percent on second down were successful and converting on either third or fourth down was called a successful play. 51 percent of ASU’s total plays were a success.
We saw a much more expanded playbook tonight than last week and the results were impressive. What we saw tonight could be an indication the Sun Devil offense will be as potent as it has been the last three years. It's safe to assume Wilkins and the other first-year starters should only improve with experience. ASU might not score 68 points again for a long time but the offense definitely has the potential to be one of the top units in the conference.
The rushing attack was dominant. Ballage rushed 13 times for 137 yards and seven of his scores came on the ground. Junior Demario Richard had a workmanlike 30 carries for 109 yards. The two backs might not have garnered much attention nationally this offseason as fans or they would have liked but after tonight, the two-headed rushing attack ASU has this year will be on the radar of the national media, opposing coaches and top running back recruits.
The receivers had a relatively quiet evening. Eight receivers had receptions. Freshman N'Keal Harry had his second strong game. He had six receptions for 72 yards and a score. He also drew two pass interference penalties. He might not be a true No. 1 wide receiver yet but he is well on his way.
Senior Tim White had six receptions for 40 yards. He also had 155 yards of returning yardage. He got banged up late in the game but head coach Todd Graham indicated on the radio after the game that injury wasn’t serious in nature.
Junior Cameron Smith had a quiet night with just two receptions. He did not get a lot of snaps at receiver in this game. The main group right now appears set with Harry, White, Smith, sophomore Jalen Harvey and senior Frederick Gammage.
Senior tight end Kody Kohl had his first two receptions of the season, also the first two for an ASU tight end this year. Both plays were well designed leaving Kohl wide open. Junior Raymond Epps saw more snaps this week than last and was out there by himself for some snaps in 11-personnel. He was not targeted though by Wilkins.
The offensive line played at a high level. ASU surrendered zero sacks and Wilkins was rarely pressured. For the most part the unit created holes for the backs on short yardage situations and the group bolstered by junior defensive lineman Christian Hill dominated the line of scrimmage in short yardage situations. We saw a different starting group with junior center A.J. McCollum making his first start. Senior Stephon McCray and sophomore Quinn Bailey slid out respectively to right guard and right tackle. Freshman Zach Robertson sat out due to injury. It will be interesting to see when he returns to full health how ASU deploys its linemen. This group played well tonight but Robertson might have the highest ceiling of the top six linemen. At the very least ASU has some depth along its offensive front.
As well as the offense played, the defense might have played equally as bad. The first half was as bad of a performance as we have seen under Graham and after 2015 that is saying a lot.
At halftime, Texas Tech had 34 points, 380 yards (41 plays), 16 first downs and went five-for-seven on third downs. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed 23-of-29 passes for 353 yards.
ASU was shorthanded on defense. It was without linebackers Salamo Fiso and Christian Sam. Junior Spur linebacker Marcus Ball had to sit out the first half because of a targeting penalty against NAU. His replacement sophomore Tyler Whiley did not last the first half. It substituted in senior Laiu Moeakiola in the second quarter at Spur, where Moeakiola has started the last two years but had rarely practiced at this year.
The defense rarely blitzed in the first half. In fact, at times it only rushed three defenders. We probably saw the Sun Devils rush three players more times in this game than they have in the past four years. The soft zone/sitting back defense was no more effective against Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense than the all-out blitzing that it used against them when they played in the Holiday Bowl in 2013.
Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson made changes at the half. We did not see the all-out attack but ASU sent five or six rushers more often in the second half and the extra pressure was enough to throw Texas Tech junior Patrick Mahomes off of his rhythm. Mahomes in the second half was 15-of-24 for 187 yards and one touchdown and two interceptions.
Texas Tech's offense had 12 explosive plays, eight of which came in the first half. It finished with eight negative plays. 51 percent of its plays were deemed successful but at halftime that percentage was 57 percent. In the second half Texas Tech only had a 42 percent success rate. Its third down conversion rate in the second half was just 1-of-6.
Overall ASU's defense has shown signs it can be solid but it needs better play from the Spur position and to generate more pressure on the quarterback when it rushes four or less. Sophomore defensive end Joseph Wicker has yet to break out and had one bad missed tackle that allowed Texas Tech to score a touchdown instead of kicking a field goal early on.
Junior Koron Crump is a work in progress. Late in the game he came up with a key sack but on that play he was not lined up properly until the instant the ball was snapped. Pass rush from the Devil backer is a key component of this system and he needs to raise his overall level of play.
Junior Alani Latu had a solid game playing more at more of an inside backer spot than the Devil where he has mainly played the past year or so. When Fiso and Sam return it will be interesting see if Latu loses snaps or slides over to Devil. At the very least he seems to a valuable backup player who can help at different positions.
The defensive backfield struggled throughout the game. The play of the starting cornerbacks has not been as bad as last season. Senior De'Chavon Hayes continues to develop and his two interceptions were big tonight. Sophomore Kareem Orr has played well overall and does a good job of getting off of blocks to make plays versus the run and on screens.
Safety/Spur has been the weak link this year. Mental mistakes at Bandit and Spur have been the cause of multiple big plays so far this year. Sophomore Armand Perry had a couple of costly lapses in coverage but those are correctable. Junior Chad Adams is a liability in coverage at bandit, but he is what he is and that is a backup. Moeakiola and Ball have rarely played together this year and assuming ASU can get those two players to consistently man those spots, you would assume it would result in fewer mental errors.
Arizona State’s special teams were nearly as dominant as Ballage. Punter Matt Haack had just three punts but all of them were over 50 yards and all of them were inside the 10-yard line with one that landed at the 1-yard line which set up a safety for the Sun Devils. Wilkins punted once for 43 yards and that was downed on the 4-yard line.
Senior Zane Gonzalez converted his lone field goal attempt. He kicked all but two of kickoffs into the end zone. One was a failed onside attempt which did catch Texas Tech off guard but bounced out of bounds. The other was inexplicably fair caught.
The Sun Devils had a 193-to-0 advantage in return yards. When you beat your opponent so thoroughly in one of the the three phases it helps to cover up mistakes made in other areas.
The win puts ASU in position to start 4-0 and finishing with seven or eight wins this season is more likely but the mistakes on the back end will have to be cut down as well as improving the pass rush.