There were so many questions about the Arizona State football program coming into this season. After last night’s season-opening 37-31 win over New Mexico State, most of them are still unanswered.
The one big question that has been answered is the identity of the starting quarterback. Not surprisingly, the starting job for the season opener went to Manny Wilkins, who started 10 games last year and threw for 2,329 yards. Graham had a stockpile of signal callers he could turn to this season, including Blake Barnett, a five-star prospect out of high school who began the 2016 season as the starting QB for Alabama.
Wilkins had an impressive outing for the first game of the season, completing 22 of 27 attempts for 321 yards and a pair of touchdowns – especially when he wasn’t getting the kind of protection from his offensive line he needed and spent too much time scrambling. Wilkins was sacked seven times.
But the rest of the picture is still a little fuzzy. And a game against a team like the Aggies, who have’t been relevant for a lot of years, doesn’t really serve as an accurate barometer of whether this Sun Devil edition is really ready for the season ahead.
New Mexico State is coming off a 3-9 season in 2016 and was picked in the preseason polls to finish 10th in the 12-school Sun Belt Conference. The Aggies averaged just 25 points a game last season, while giving up 39.
Despite that, they managed to rack up more total yards of offense last night than ASU, 549 to 400, and out-gained the Sun Devils in both passing yardage (398-321) and rushing yards (151-79).
Hey, a win is a win. But the numbers don’t lie.
Those anemic 79 yards on the ground really muddy the picture of what ASU is going to be able to do offensively this season. After ranking 10th in the conference last season in rushing yardage, with an average per game of 131.5 yards, it was hoped the running game would become the force it was in the first few years after head coach Todd Graham took over in 2011. But 79 yards isn’t going to get it done.
Give some credit, however, to senior running back Kalen Ballage. He accounted for the rushing yardage and had 140 all-purpose yards, scored two touchdowns, and chipped in a 51-yard kickoff return.
It was also hoped the defense, too, would return to those earlier times after ranking last in the country in passing defense the last two years. Graham hired Phil Bennett away from Baylor in the off-season to take over as defensive coordinator and, hopefully, correct the situation.
ASU’s pressure defense was aggressive and often effective, putting up six sacks. But it appears that a secondary that allowed a team like the Aggies to throw for almost 400 yards still needs some serious tweaking.
The one bright spot was the fourth-quarter interception that sophomore DB Kobe Williams turned into a touchdown and ended up providing the margin of victory.
It was a sad defensive effort in the first half that couldn’t keep the Aggies’ offense off the field, letting the visitors put together scoring drives of 13 plays and 11 plays. As a result, ASU held a slim 14-13 advantage going into the locker room.
Granted, letting NMS rack up 12 points in the last five minutes of the game made the outcome closer than it should have been. But the final six-point spread is all that kept the rumblings amid the fan base from starting, the ones that would have been questioning whether Graham’s job security was now seriously eroding after coming off two losing seasons. A loss to start this season would have been devastating.
There’s a lot of season left to play, but this was an important win. It helped restore some of the fan confidence lost during a couple of seasons that saw just 11 wins total for both years. But a less-than-capacity crowd of 46,596 at Sun Devil Stadium is an indication of the skepticism that lingers.
Graham needs to continue winning – but winning BIG to re-ignite the fires that burned brightly during the 2013 and 2014 seasons when he posted back-to-back finishes of 10 wins.
Yesterday’s win doesn’t come close to accomplishing that.