Arizona State tops New Mexico State in lackluster win

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Arizona State wide receiver Jalen Harvey scores a 53-yard touchdown. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) Arizona State wide receiver Jalen Harvey scores a 53-yard touchdown. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The last two seasons have left Arizona State football fans feeling like they stepped out onto a ledge. Thursday's season-opening victory over New Mexico State did little to back them up. 

Entering the game as a three-touchdown favorite over one of the historically worst programs in the FBS, ASU fizzled after a fast start. The Sun Devils' 37-31 victory wasn't nearly as close as the final score indicated, but their performance created far more questions than answers.

Just about the only thing that was definitively answered was the result. ASU is 1-0.

"I'll take an ugly win every week," said Graham.

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Yet in today's college game, that is almost certainly an unsustainable strategy. ASU must get better in multiple phases, and must do so quickly.

The retooled Sun Devil offensive line surrendered seven sacks to an Aggie defense that totaled just 11 all year in 2016. ASU's defense, refusing to make a substitution until the fourth quarter, gave up 549 yards to the Aggies', marking their highest total in nearly two seasons. After jumping out to a 14-0 lead in the game's first six-and-a-half minutes, the Sun Devils sputtered and entered halftime clinging to a 14-13 lead.

"We should’ve went up 21-0. Sacks and negative plays," Graham said. "We were getting the ball out quick and following our plan, and we have to stick to that. We have to protect that."

However, there are some positives upon which to build.

Quarterback Manny Wilkins, having retained the starting job over newcomer Blake Barnett, threw for 300 yards and two long touchdowns, while completing 22 of his 27 throws. Wide receiver John Humphrey, getting his first taste of game action after a redshirt year at Oklahoma and a season sitting out as a transfer, posted team highs of seven receptions and 123 yards. He showed the type of game-breaking speed that could make this ASU offense a potent attack throughout the year. ASU's two new starting cornerbacks, Joey Bryant and Kobe Williams, each intercepted a pass, with Williams taking his 49 yards for a touchdown.

"I thought we did some things that we wanted to do," Graham said. "We got TFLs and sacks on defense, but we gave up too many. We had too many negative plays on offense. We had some explosive plays and did some good things, but the bottom line is that you go out and you’re 1-0."

At the outset, the game appeared to be heading towards the blowout many envisioned.

Bryant's interception on the game's opening drive set up a seven-yard Kalen Ballage touchdown run. That was followed by a 53-yard scoring pass from Wilkins to Jalen Harvey on ASU's next possession.

"We had a lot of guys making some plays," Wilkins said. "It was good to see them make some plays and get some confidence rolling."

But things soon ground to a halt. After racking up 159 yards in the opening quarter, ASU gained just 58 in the second half. Meanwhile, NMSU scored twice, and only a JoJo Wicker block of an extra point prevented the game from being tied at the half.

"I thought that was the best we played against a better conference team since I have been coaching here," said NMSU head coach Doug Martin of his defense. "We competed really hard on that side."

Meanwhile, ASU's defense was playing without making any substitutions during a game in which the temperature at kickoff was over 100 degrees. But that, surprisingly, was the plan.

“That is what we expect. All of us," said senior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood, who had four tackles-for-loss. "The starting 11 is expected to play all the snaps. It was really no surprise."

But the cracks began to show as the game wore on, specifically in the latter two halves. NMSU gained just 40 yards in the opening quarter, but 209 in the second. The Aggies managed just 53 to open the second half, but gained 247 in the final quarter.

With the slim halftime margin, visions of ASU's stunning 35-7 upset loss to NMSU in 1999 were popping up, but a strong third quarter put those to bed...for a while.

Freshman kicker Brandon Ruiz made his first collegiate field goal, a 52-yard kick to open the scoring. One minute of game time later, Wilkins connected with the speedy Humphrey for a 60-yard score.

“We were inside the huddle," Humphrey said, "And I just told Manny to just put it out there, and I’ll get underneath it,”

“I just told him to run,” said Wilkins. “He’s fast as hell, and if that dude gets behind the corner, then that’s what we’re going to do. He’s just got to run under it and make a play.”

A 20-yard Ballage touchdown run extended the lead, and Williams' interception return for a score early in the fourth quarter seemingly put the game away at 37-13.

It did not. 

NMSU's Jason Huntley gashed the tired Sun Devil defense for a 50-yard score, and then caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tyler Rogers just minutes later to make it a 37-25 game with just over five minutes left in the game.

"I think the biggest positive we have is belief," Martin said. "Our guys believe they can win and they have the confidence to play hard until the end."

The Sun Devils managed to hold off the Aggie charge just long enough, even with Rogers connecting with Jaleel Scott for a 29-yard touchdown on the game's final play. 

A win is a win, but it was an uneven performance that just furthers the widespread concerns many have over the direction of the team. There is time to work the issues out, but not much.

"We had a lot of big plays," Ballage said. "There were a lot of new moving parts to our offense and our defense, special teams, players, and schemes, offensively and defensively. I think it was exciting to see those guys go out there and make plays, and I'm excited to see what comes next."

What comes next is a solid San Diego State team coming to Tempe for a game next Saturday. The Aztecs have won 22 games over the past two seasons, and will pose a tough test for the Sun Devils. If ASU wants to get to 2-0, they will have to be much better than they were on Thursday night.

"The bottom line is that you go out and you’re 1-0," Graham said. "We’ve done a great job at defending this field. Now we have to come back and go to work and get ready for San Diego State.”

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