Arizona State‘s football fortunes tonight rest in an area of the field that’s about four yards wide.
That’s about the length of the offensive line. And that’s the battleground where Saturday’s game against San Diego State will likely be won or lost.
Yes, there’s still plenty of concern about the development of a defense that ranked last the past two years in passing defense. But if you can’t establish a ground game, or have time to find your receivers, you can’t put points on the board.
And the Aztecs will put points on the board. They were the nation’s No. 7 rushing offense last year, averaging almost 300 yards a game.
ASU will just need to keep up. That job starts with the offensive line.
However, the one the Sun Devils are counting on is still in the maturation process.
Last season, senior running back Kalen Ballage ran for 536 yards from scrimmage in just six starts, but was held to just 79 yards in last week’s season opener against New Mexico State, a team that finished 3-9 last season and picked in the preseason polls to finish 10th in the Sun Belt Conference.
That inability to run the football against the Aggies conjures up visions of last year, when ASU ranked 10th in the Pac-12 Conference in rushing yardage.
Meanwhile, redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins spent too much time scrambling to get away from an aggressive Aggies’ pass rush. He was sacked seven times in that game and tackled for loss a total of 14 times. Yet he still managed to complete 22 of 27 attempts for 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Here’s why that’s worrisome. If an inferior opponent like the Aggies can get to Wilkins that easily, what’s going to happen tonight when a better team like San Diego State sets its sights on him? SDSU is the two-time defending champion of the Mountain West Conference and is coming off consecutive 11-win seasons.
Last week against UC Davis the Aztecs forced three turnovers, including two picks, and recorded eight sacks.
SDSU’s obective will be to keep the pressure on Wilkins and get him to throw under duress, giving the Aztec secondary a chance to make interceptions. The Aztecs are one of the best in the nation at doing that. Since the beginning of the 2015 season, they lead the nation in interceptions (51) and are tied with Utah for the most turnovers during that span. In 2015, their 34 take-aways were second-best in the country.
They’re a ball-hungry team with the talent to turn turnovers into points.
Tonight’s 8 p.m. game would pose a challenge even for an experienced O-line, but the Sun Devils have just three returning starters on the line – 311-pound senior center A.J. McCollum, junior tackle Quinn Bailey, and junior guard Sam Jones – and very little depth. That part of the offense is still a work in progress.
Ballage, who last year tied an NCAA record with eight touchdowns in a single game, is going to need a big game to help counteract the Aztec’s senior running back Rashaad Penny, who racked up 197 of the team-total 276 rushing yards last week. Penny is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season in 2016 – when he was a back-up!
In recognition of last week’s performance, he was named the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week.
Containing the Aztecs’ running game will be high on the priority list for the Sun Devils. If ASU can hold their offense to 200 yards rushing, they have the best chance of winning this one. The Aztecs have won 33 straight games when collecting 200 or more yards running the ball.
To be fair, it should be noted that SDSU’s offense is also working with a line with limited experience. They had to replace four starters from last year’s squad.
However, Penny’s performance last week would indicate they are quick learners.
As important as the defensive effort is going to be, tonight’s battle will likely be won in the trenches. A strong showing by the ASU offensive line will ignite both phases of the Sun Devil attack and put the lackluster performance of last week behind them.
It’s still early in the schedule, but when you’re coming off two straight losing seasons, every game is looked at as a must-win.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)