Arizona State moved to 4-0 after a come-from-behind 51-41 victory over Cal. For the the fourth consecutive game the Sun Devils started slowly but came out strong after halftime to earn the victory.
On Saturday, ASU scored 31 points in the fourth quarter alone, the most by a FBS program so far this season. It is only the second time a team has scored 31 fourth quarter points in a comeback win in the last five years, with the other contest being an Arizona victory over Cal in 2014.
A big key to the 4-0 start has been the borderline domination of ASU’s special teams. The two muffed punts ASU had last week against Texas-San Antonio aside, the units have been spectacular this year. Senior kicker Zane Gonzalez and senior punter Matt Haack have been excellent. In this game ASU’s average starting field position was the 41-yard line while Cal's average start was the 22-yard line. For the season, ASU’s opponents' average starting field position is the 26-yard line.
Haack in particular has been a weapon for ASU. The Sun Devils allowed zero punt return yards in the game. For the season it has only surrendered 30 yards to punt returners. Haack had three punts for a 50.3 average and all three were inside the 20. Quarterback Manny Wilkins had two punts for a 43-yard average as well, both downed inside the 5-yard line.
Gonzalez was converted all three of his field goal attempts. Seven of his ten kickoffs went for touchbacks and ASU only allowed 18 yards per return on the three that were not touchbacks.
Junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun sealed the win for the Sun Devils when he returned Cal’s onside kick attempt 42 yards for a touchdown with 48 seconds to play.
If ASU continues to win the special teams matchup each week it will help mask having a young quarterback and a suspect defense. Assistant coach Shawn Slocum deserves a lot of credit for turning around an underperforming unit he took over last season.
ASU's offense struggled for much of the first half. Early on, Wilkins was just making one read and then taking off and running. ASU only mustered 138 yards and seven first downs in the half. It only had three successful plays and five negative plays. It converted just one of seven third downs and only had a 35 percent successful play rate.
In the second half ASU came out and ran the ball effectively on its first drive. It had eight successful plays and three explosive plays on the first drive of the half. In second half, ASU totaled 316 yards of offense, 16 first downs, seven explosive plays, four negative plays and had a 55 percent successful play rate. ASU was 7-for-11 on third and fourth down in the half.
Most of the credit for the offense’s turnaround goes to offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. ASU used its run game to put Wilkins in position to make plays and kept him out of third and longs. In the first half, Wilkins completed just five of ten attempts with an interception and 62 yards passing. In the second half, he was 16-of-20 with 228 yards and no jeopardy throws.
Wilkins' ability to make plays with his feet continues to be both a crutch and benefit to him. For the game he rushed 23 times for 72 yards with 50 of those yards coming in the first half. He needs to work through his progressions more and not expose himself to as many hits. Overall he has played well and has limited his jeopardy throws. He does a good job of spreading the ball around, and he completed passes to eight receivers in the game.
The rushing attack was mediocre overall but better in the second half. Junior Demario Richard only rushed for 67 yards on 19 carries. Most of those yards were tough yards. Junior Kalen Ballage was knocked out of much of the first half after taking a helmet to the knee. He only gained 51 yards from scrimmage total in the game but had several big runs out of the Sparky formation late in the game including a key fourth down conversion.
The offensive line allowed three sacks in the first half but just one sack in the second. The run blocking was better in the second half but ASU only gained 90 yards total on the ground in the second half and 164 total in the game, which could have been the reason head coach Todd Graham elected to kick a 44-yard field goal in the third quarter down ten, instead of going for it.
Wilkins completed passes to eight different receivers. Senior Tim White led the Sun Devils with six receptions for 86 yards. Sophomore Jalen Harvey had a good game, maybe his best yet at ASU, with five catches for 83 yards. Freshman standout N'Keal Harry only had one reception for seven yards. He probably drew more attention from Cal after a strong start to his season.
ASU did not target its tight ends much in the game. The Sun Devils used four tight ends, if you count junior Christian Hill, but completed just two passes to them. Senior Kody Kohl had just one reception for five yards. Sophomore JayJay Wilson only was in on a handful of plays but his 30-yard touchdown reception was a huge play in the game.
Wilson is a weapon who can make big plays in the passing game and as a blocker. It would not be a surprise to see his reps continue to grow each week and for him to become more of a regular contributor as the season progresses.
Defensively Arizona State still has a lot of work to do, but it got better in the second half. In the first half Cal ran 54 plays, had 12 explosives and five negatives with 19 first downs and a 43 percent success rate. In the second Cal only ran 39 plays with six explosive plays, eight negative plays, ten first downs and a 31 percent success rate.
ASU’s defense made big plays in the second half. ASU was minus-one in takeaways in the first half but finished plus two. The Sun Devils finished the game with four sacks.
Schematically it did not seem like the Sun Devils made dramatic changes at the half. Unlike the Texas Tech game, ASU pressured early but was never in the all-out blitz mode we saw them use last year when it lost to Cal at Berkeley.
Senior linebacker Salamo Fiso played his first game and looked rusty in the first half and played much better in the second. His interception of Davis Webb over the middle is the type of play (getting a deep enough drop) he has struggled with in the past. He missed some tackles early on but overall it was a good first game for him as he was tied for the team lead with eight tackles in the game.
Senior Laiu Moeakiola made his first start of this season at Spur linebacker had the pick-six of Webb that was the type of heady play he brings to the defense. Spur is his best position and assuming he can hold up physically, ASU has solved its issue at Spur.
Junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes made his first start at bandit safety. He had seven tackles but was pulled early on for one play for Chad Adams and ASU elected to use Adams at bandit at the end of the very end of the game. Moving forward bandit continues to be a question mark. True freshman Kyle Williams who practiced at the position this week only saw one snap with the defensive tonight. Next week versus USC it could be one of Rhodes, Adams or Williams at the position or possibly sophomore Armand Perry.
Perry had eight tackles and a tackle of loss at field safety. The one time cornerback is a physical defensive back who is probably best suited for bandit but seems to be the only player the coaches feel comfortable handing field safety.
Senior De'Chavon Hayes had an up and down game at cornerback. He seems to have a short memory, which is a good for corner in Graham’s system. He competes every play but is prone to making basic mistakes at times, like when he looked back for the ball on one of Cal’s long scores that allowed the receiver to gain separation.
Junior college transfer Koron Crump had a good night. The Devil backer had two sacks and a forced fumble. He is rotating with junior Alani Latu at Devil but he is the more dynamic of the two players and tonight was the type of game ASU will need from him as it enters the tough part of its schedule.
Sophomore defensive end Joseph Wicker had four tackles including a tackle for loss on the night. He was more impactful in the game than on the stat sheet. ASU needs to get pressure from him as well as the Devil for it to be successful in this system.
4-0 for the first time since 2007, ASU heads to Los Angeles next week to face a 1-3 USC team who is basically playing for its season. The next seven games are going to be challenging to say the least for the Sun Devils. The Pac-12 South is completely wide open at this point with UCLA losing to Stanford. Colorado is not a pushover this year as its showed winning at Oregon Saturday. Arizona gave Washington all it could handle losing in overtime to the Huskies.
ASU is now 24-6 at home under Graham. If the Sun Devils can match that level of performance this year they could win the South but they will have to win at least one or two games on the road as well. For those things to happen the defense will have to improve and limit the big plays. Wilkins will need to continue to progress and the special teams will have to keep up its level of play.