Ten Takeaways: Texas Tech

On a night that saw more points than any other game played in Arizona State history, it was only fitting that other records were broken as well. Here's a look at the Sun Devils 68-55 win over Texas Tech.

1. Arizona State junior running back Kalen Ballage became the first player in NCAA history to score eight touchdowns against an FBS opponent in his team's win against Texas Tech. He also broke the Pac-12 record with seven rushing touchdowns, broke the Pac-12 record for points in a game, broke the ASU record for touchdowns in a game (previously five) and broke the ASU record for points in a game. It's hard to believe but Ballage had more touchdowns on Saturday than he did in his first two seasons as a Sun Devil in total. Six of Ballage's touchdowns came as he took the direct snap inside the 10-yard line situations with quarterback Manny Wilkins split out at wide receiver (carries of 1, 1, 1, 2, 4 and 7 yards). Texas Tech had no answer for the offensive set, which ASU is calling the "Sparky" formation. Ballage also had a 75 yard touchdown run from scrimmage and a 39 yard touchdown reception. He showed a rare combination of speed and power that is enhanced from anything he's displayed to this point in his college career. In each of the last two seasons he wasn't at full strength entering the season. This year? He's looking like one of the most potent running backs in the country. 

2. It was clear after the Sun Devils' season opener against Northern Arizona that sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins would need to elevate his play against the Red Raiders given that it might require a big offensive output to emerge victorious. In his first college start against an FBS opponent, Wilkins was nothing short of terrific. He completed 28 of 37 passes for 351 yards and two touchdowns. The most impressive part of the performance was how effectively Wilkins operated the ASU offense. His coaches have repeatedly emphasized their goals of not turning the football over and not having negative yardage plays. ASU ran 90 plays from scrimmage and had just five negative yardage instances, including penalties. Of his 37 throws, Wilkins didn't have anything that came close to an interception. Texas Tech hasn't been a good defense but has tended to generate more turnovers than most teams. It wasn't an issue whatsoever for ASU on the night. Wilkins also got the ball very quickly to the perimeter on screens, showed a bit more throwing range, and was able to manage the offense at pace. It wasn't perfect of course, as Wilkins still missed some open players who were secondary reads and tended to still get stuck on his first target a bit much. It's splitting hairs in a performance like this though. 

3. As first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey eased into this game he increasingly dominated it with his play-calling, and showed additional glimpses of what the future might hold with him at the controls. Early on there were two lower percentage third down and 3 play calls that were fades into the boundary, one of which was to the running back on a wheel fade. It was a question as to whether the Sun Devils were working to establish the run enough against some six and seven man boxes on display by Texas Tech. Lindsey clearly had a plan though. He established the perimeter of the field with the screen game and took some targeted vertical shots in appropriate situations, not the least of which being the Flea Flicker touchdown throw to Ballage on second and 1 from the 39 Texas Tech 39 yard line. After doing so enough to keep the Red Raiders spread out, he turned to the run game, with ASU rushing 29 times to just 15 passes in the second half. The Sun Devils passed for just 123 yards in the second half of a game in which they scored 68 points. There was a huge offensive output of 652 yards and 7.2 yards per play, but most remarkable was how little risk was involved in such a performance. Five negative plays, no turnovers and no jeopardy throws. Lindsey's fingerprints are all over that. 

4. One of the most creative wrinkles put in place by Lindsey was the so-called "Sparky" formation, which is what ASU is calling the offensive set most commonly referred to as the Wildcat. In the season opener we saw Lindsey bring Wilkins under center and show some play-calling versatility out of a look that is better suited for goal line play than traditional runs out of a shotgun set. In this game he presented something Texas Tech certainly had not spent any time preparing for, and the result was Ballage's record-setting performance and ASU scoring touchdowns on all six of its red zone chances (all Ballage carries). The formation moved Wilkins to a wideout position, inserted defensive linemen Christian Hill as an h-back stacked behind senior tight end Kody Kohl, and junior running back Demario Richard stacked behind Hill. One of the most interesting aspects of the formation was seeing Richard operate as one of the key blockers ahead of Ballage on at least several of his runs. There are a variety of play calls out of this formation, as Ballage could pitch the ball to Richard on an option, or throw it over to the top to a tight end. But none of that was needed. 

5. ASU's offensive line had a lackluster performance against the Lumberjacks to open the season but rebounded in a major way versus the Red Raiders. With redshirt freshman Zach Robertson still nursing a sore ankle, offensive line coach Chris Thomsen decided to bump sophomore Quinn Bailey from right guard to right tackle in Robertson's place, move senior Stephon McCray from center to right guard, and give junior A.J. McCollum his first career start at center. It worked out very well for the Sun Devils, as their physical edge increased as the game wore on, even against a rebuilt Red Raiders defensive line that featured transfers from Michigan and Notre Dame. This was never more apparent than in the "Sparky" formation, but not only on display there. McCollum improved the physicality of ASU at center even against 325 pound nose guard Ondre Pipkins, as McCray is more of an angle and leverage blocker, which is better suited at guard. One of Bailey's best skills is how well he down blocks for a taller linemen, and doing so from the tackle spot created a lot of opportunities on man-blocking plays that brought sophomore Sam Jones pulling left to right around the edge. Jones is continuing to show better range and composure on his pulls, and there was better syncing of blocks by the unit as a whole. It was an important step against a defense that was last in the Big-12 in 2015 against the run. 

6. It's never going to be considered a successful night defensively when you give up 612 yards from scrimmage and 8.2 yards per play, but the Sun Devils can hang their hat on a second half effort that was much better than how they performed in the first half. A starkly different approach to defensive play-calling and a key personnel swap enabled the improvement. ASU coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson were uncharacteristically very conservative with their approach in the first half. Playing out of what ostensibly was a 3-3-5 defensive alignment they frequently only rushed three down linemen and played zone coverage behind it at depth with a mix of man and zone underneath it. This was in part due to the mobility and play extension threat of Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and understandable in that sense. But the Sun Devils were getting carved up by Mahomes, with a glaring lack of zone integrity and open field tackling that directly led to touchdown competions of 59 and 75 yards, respectively. Sophomore Spur Tyler Whiley, who started in part due to junior Marcus Ball being forced to sit out the first half after a targeting foul against NAU, was involved in the breakdowns on both long touchdowns. After the second one, senior Laiu Moeakiola took a lot of the reps at Spur even though Graham said he's still not back to full strength from a hamstring injury. But what really changed the game was how ASU coaches dialed up much more pressure in the second half, pairing stunts and linebacker blitzes with bump man coverage across the line of scrimmage. The result? Texas Tech converted 5 of 7 third down plays in the first half, and just 1 of 6 in the second half. Mahomes threw for 353 yards and fourth touchdowns in the first half, and 187 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions in the second half. 

7. Freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry took another big step in the right direction for his career. He tied for the team lead with six catches and led ASU with 72 receiving yards including a touchdown reception. Harry got off to a good start against a sagging Texas Tech zone, running an an out route that expanded the defender before he dropped his weight and got his shoulders around. Then he had a physical stop route just inside the goal line when he pushed off the defensive back D.J. Polite-Bray at the top of his stem and shielded the cornerback as the ball arrived on time and well located from Wilkins. Harry also ran several nice bang 8 skinny post routes that exploited the soft defensive framework. Those were some of the routes open to Wilkins in the NAU game that weren't targeted, but there was an improvement in this game. Harry hasn't cleanly separted from defensive backs yet on verticals in man coverage and that'll have to be demonstrated yet, but he's tracking well and running some of the NFL route tree with a decent technical proficiency already as a freshman. He could well be the Sun Devils' No. 2 target already after White. 

8. We figured special teams could be a real strength for ASU this season, as the only Pac-12 team with a punter and kicker on the preseason watch lists at both positions. Against Texas Tech, senior punter Matt Haack punted three times and had a 55 yard punt average with all three punts ending up inside the opponent's 20-yard line. In fact, Haack did much better than that, as his punts were downed at the 4-yard line, the 1-yard line and 7-yard line respectively. Additionally, Wilkins had a 43 yard punt that was downed at the Texas Tech 2-yard line. That's four possessions in which the Red Raiders had to start inside their own 10-yard line in the game. ASU won the starting field position battle easily and that was a big factor in the game. Senior kicker Zane Gonzalez had nine of his 10 kickoffs go as touchbacks. The only one that didn't? An on-sides attempt that failed. The Sun Devils were very good on special teams except for the roughing the punter mistake by Frederick Gammage that came in a really bad situation. 

9. Gammage's penalty was one of several glaring errors by the Sun Devils, a few of which are fundamental mistakes that coaches will be very upset with. ASU was fortunate in this game that its penalties didn't play a larger role in the outcome but at least one did contribute to a long touchdown it allowed. Defensive linemen Renell Wren and Edmond Boateng failed to visually key the football and were caught off sides by the hard count by Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Wren was off-sides one of the long touchdown completions and it led to Mahomes knowing he had a free play, which he took advantage of. Redshirt freshman George Lea also flinched at the line of scrimmage on the play that Mahomes wasn't expecting a snap, leading to a Texas Tech safety. With its secondary already an issue, the Sun Devils don't need basic errors and costly penalties at the line of scrimmage. 

10. Graham referenced the significance of his team's win in the post-game press conference and we agree with him. Seeing ASU's offense show some potency and the ability to not only hang tough in a shootout, but emerge victorious with a really impressive performance is a good sign for upcoming weeks. Texas-San Antonio shouldn't be nearly the challenge of Texas Tech offensively, and Cal is a similar style of opponent as Texas Tech schematically, with similarly bad play defensively and a bit less offensive versatility. There's a real opportunity for ASU to climb to 4-0 and be playing good football with a lot of confidence as it gets healthier moving into the heart of the schedule. 


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