Kalen Ballage inspired by Wilkins, offensive line

Arizona State junior running back Kalen Ballage was complimentary of his teammates on Wednesday, citing quarterback Manny Wilkins' toughness as one of Wilkins' defining characteristics.

Against Texas Tech, junior running back Kalen Ballage turned in a record-setting performance with eight touchdowns to help lead Arizona State to a 68-55 victory over the Red Raiders.

Against Texas-San Antonio, it was Ballage's teammates' turn to do the talking, as the Pac-12 record holder for touchdowns in a single game was inspired by the play of sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins and ASU's young offensive line.

In the first quarter, Wilkins took off on a quarterback scramble and took a devastating blow from a Roadrunners' defender who blew up the play right in front of Ballage. Even though the hit elicited groans from ASU's sideline, Wilkins got right back up and trotted back to the line of scrimmage for the next play.

"I mean, Manny's no regular quarterback in my eyes, he's tough as nails so anytime he gets hit, he pops right up and he keeps playing," Ballage said. "That's what football is about, you pop up after being hit and after anything, just getting right back up and playing football."

Wilkins is the Sun Devils' third leading rusher, behind Ballage and fellow junior Demario Richard who have helped ASU to an average of 260.7 yards per game on the ground, which ranks second among all Pac-12 teams. 

ASU has used five new offensive linemen this season, including junior center A.J. McCollum who slid into the starting lineup following an injury to redshirt freshman offensive tackle Zach Robertson. Even with the team's inexperience up front, Ballage said the Sun Devils' offense knew it had the capability to dominate on the ground. 

"I mean, we're not the ones that had the questions," Ballage said to the media. "We knew what we had on this football team, I don't know what you guys thought."

After playing the role of hero against Texas Tech, Ballage nearly had a hand in costing ASU an opportunity to secure its first road win of the season. With senior wide receiver Tim White sidelined for the first half of the game with an injury, ASU tabbed Ballage to return punts.

In the first half, Ballage touched a rolling punt from UTSA when he was surrounded by four would-be tacklers. After Ballage was unable to secure possession, the Roadrunners fell on the football, took over inside the ASU 25-yard line, and ultimately scored one of the team's four touchdowns.

"Just stop the ball from rolling maybe 10 or 15 more yards, it came in kind of hot and I misjudged the ball," Ballage said of what he was trying to accomplish.

The Colorado native said it was his first time returning a punt in a game since high school, but that he's practiced punt returns every day this season. 

After the mistake, Ballage regrouped and stuck to his role on offense for the remainder of the game. After practice on Wednesday, Ballage said he was disappointed in the muffed punt, but satisfied with how he and the rest of ASU's offense responded to adversity. 

"There were some mistakes that were made, one on my part, but I feel like I did a great job the rest of the game keeping my head up, making plays and giving us an opportunity to win the football game," Ballage said. "That's on everybody, if you make a mistake, you make up for it and play football. It's not about the individual person, it's about 11 people at all times." 

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