ASU rides dominant special teams effort to win

Arizona State thoroughly outplayed Cal on special teams throughout Saturday's Pac-12 Conference opener.

In a game in which Arizona States offensive and defensive units struggled to find consistency, it was the Sun Devils' special teams performance that helped lead the program to its first 4-0 record since 2007.

Throughout the first four weeks of the season, special teams has been a constant bright spot. Senior specialists, kicker Zane Gonzalez and punter Matt Haack, have led the renaissance.

Yeah, thats something that we felt like coming into the year we would be able to do,head coach Todd Graham said. We really made great strides last year. We've got the best kicker in the country and I think we've got one of the best punters in the country, if not the best. Its been so consistent you take it for granted a little bit. Zane (Gonzalez) tried to make it interesting on one field goal tonight, but that one went in there.

Gonzalez added three more field goals to his season total, which now makes him 11-for-12, and on Saturday, he passed Luis Zendejas to become the all-time leader in field goals for the ASU program with 84.

Before Gonzalezs outburst to start the season, which included a 53-yard field goal against Northern Arizona and two 54-yard attempts against Texas-San Antonio, he had yet to convert on a kick from beyond 50 yards.

Gonzalez has had 17 career field goals longer of at least 44 yards, and seven of those have come in the Sun Devilslast five outings.

Another area that ASUs placekicker is having a major impact through the first one-third of the season is on kickoffs. Gonzalez has allowed returns on only nine of his kickoffs a season after leading the country in touchbacks.

The Sun Devils have paired Gonzalez' placekicking consistency with excellent efforts from Haack, who continues to flip the field for ASUs defense.

Thus far, Haack has only allowed three punt returns on 11 total punts of 30, including just one return on his punts at Sun Devil Stadium. That means opposing returners are only fielding the football on the move at a 27 percent clip.

On Saturday, Haack attempted three punts -- and all of them were marked down inside the 20-yard line with a 50.3 yard average. ASU has had two games (Texas Tech, Cal) in which Haack had a 100 percent success rate in planting opponents inside their own 20-yard line.

Additionally, ASU continues to utilize the leg of a former high school punter, sophomore starting quarterback Manny Wilkins, who downed each of his two pooch punts at or inside the Cal five-yard line. All three of his attempted punts this season have landed inside of ASU's opponent's five-yard line.

Without a near-perfect game from ASUs specialists and Wilkins, in a contest in which Cals average field position was only its own 22-yard line, its unlikely the Sun Devils score a 10-point victory.

Through four games, ASUs opponents have had 60 total drives with an average starting field position at the 26-yard line. With touchbacks on kickoffs spotting the football at the 25-yard line -- and the continued success of Haack and even Wilkins in pooch-punt scenarios, the Sun Devils are consistently winning the battle of field position.

Graham mentioned Shawn Slocum, whos in his second season as ASUs special teams coordinator, as part of the drastic improvement in that area.

Before joining Grahams staff prior to the 2015 season, Slocum was part of the Green Bay Packers' coaching staff as their special teams coordinator from 2009-2014.

No, I think our guys take pride in special teams,Graham said. Coach Slocum has done a great job with them. Our guys are just working hard, getting better and staying humble and hungry with what theyre doing. That was a heck of a game tonight. It was about as stressful as you can get.

ASUs special teams unit capped off an excellent night across the board with junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun returning an onside kick 42 yards for a score with 48 seconds remaining to make it 51-41, Sun Devils.

The onside kick bounced straight into Calhouns hands, who was along the front line of ASU's onside recovery team, and he scampered untouched into the end zone to essentially end Cal's chances.

After Saturday's game, Graham praised the heart of all of his players in all three phases of the game.

I dont say that lightly, I think our kids have shown (heart),Graham said. We haven't done nothing. Weve won one game, so Im really, really proud of the heart they showed. Theyve done it every week of the season. I wish things would be a little bit easier, but thats a heck of a ball game.

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