Takes and Trends: Five items to track after ASU's Week 1 win

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Arizona State wide receiver N'Keal Harry makes a leaping catch against New Mexico State (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) Arizona State wide receiver N'Keal Harry makes a leaping catch against New Mexico State (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Arizona State opened their 2017 season with a victory over New Mexico State on Thursday night.

While satisfying in the win column, it left much to be desired elsewhere.

In this week's Takes and Trends, we'll take a look at five important stories to come from the Week 1 performance.

Manny was much better

Once again, the quarterback competition was again the offseason storyline, and once again, Manny Wilkins came out on top.

After an injury-plagued 2016 season, and a solid-if-unspectacular fall camp, questions persisted about whether Wilkins could be a top-tier playmaker at the position. While we’re far from any definitive answers, his Week 1 showing was an excellent first step.

Wilkins became the first ASU quarterback in school history to complete over 80 percent of his passes in a season opener (22 of 27), and he threw for two touchdowns, all without committing a turnover. More promisingly, he showed off a much improved deep ball, with both of his scores coming on accurate strikes downfield. In fact, his 60-yard pass to John Humphrey was likely the most impressive throw of Wilkins’ ASU career.

He still has work to do in terms of reading defenses and working through progressions, but Wilkins did a good job of playing within the offense, making the plays that they were, and most importantly, not putting the ball at risk.

“My goal was to manage the game as best as I could,” Wilkins said. “Take what the defense gave us. When we needed to throw bubbles, when they’re pulling people into the box, then throw the bubble. When they’re outside on the bubble’s, give the ball to these backs and let them go make something happen.”

ASU has no shortage of playmakers, and as long as Wilkins can efficiently get them the ball, the Sun Devils should be able to score plenty of points. 

However, that can easily go awry because...

...the offensive line played poorly

Last season, New Mexico State registered a paltry 11 sacks on the season. Only two FBS teams had fewer.

Against ASU, the Aggies notched seven, and currently sit atop the rankings in that category after Week 1.

It wasn’t just the pass protection that struggled for ASU. The Sun Devils’ ground game only gained 108 rushing yards and averaged 3.27 yards per carry (both factoring out sack totals and yardage). A season ago, NMSU’s defense ranked 118th in the nation in rushing defense (244.25 yards per game) and 115th in yards per carry (5.34)

In all phases, it was an extremely disappointing showing for a unit that had high hopes coming into the year.

After the game, Wilkins attempted to take some of the blame.

“I missed a couple protection things,” Wilkins said. “I needed to make sure we are solid on and that begins with me.”

While some of the sacks could be attributed to Wilkins holding onto the ball too long, by and large, the Aggies won the battle in the trenches against a larger and more talented ASU offensive line. Given Wilkins' history with injuries, a leaky offensive line will be a recipe for disaster.

The Sun Devils will be facing much better defenses from here on out, so the play of the offensive line will be critical in determining the team’s success. Position coach Rob Sale has his hands full.

Could the D actually be...better?

Let's address this right off the bat. There's a difference between "better" and "good". Will ASU have a good defense this year? Likely no.

But it's not unreasonable to think they could be improve enough from the dismal showing of the last two years to make ASU competitive in the Pac-12 South. Thursday night's opener hinted that could...possibly...maybe...potentially be the case.

When ASU was at their most successful under head coach Todd Graham, the Sun Devil defense was an attacking unit that relied on forcing the opposing defense into mistakes. Sacks, tackles-for-loss, and turnovers—rather than holding teams to low yardage totals—were the bread and butter. The game against NMSU followed that script.

The Aggies racked up 549 yards (yuck), but ASU forced them into two costly turnovers (resulting in 14 points, yay), and collected six sacks and eight TFLs (four coming from senior Tashon Smallwood). 

ASU's two new starting cornerbacks each logged an interception. Joey Bryant made his on NMSU's opening drive, while Kobe Williams returned his 49 yards early in the fourth quarter to effectively seal the win.

It wasn't perfect or even very good, and there was one major red flag (more on that below). Yet the key characteristics of those 2012-2014 seasons were there. Aberration or return to form?

No Subs, No Thanks

On a 100-degree evening in the desert, ASU did something unusual...very unusual. They didn’t use any substitutions on defense until the fourth quarter. Not one. The 11 starters played every snap, including 49 in the first half. Multiple reserves only saw action once ASU had built up a nice lead, and it was then that NMSU got a couple of garbage time scores to make things closer, at least on the scoreboard. 

Graham insists that it was all part of the plan.

"It's not that we don't believe in anybody or anything like that," said Graham. "Coach (defensive coordinator Phil Bennett) wanted to make a statement with his guys and that's what he did."

Senior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood agreed.

“That is what we expect. All of us,” Smallwood said. “The starting eleven is expected to play all the snaps. It was really no surprise.”

Perhaps it was no surprise to them, but it was to most everyone else.

"What was impressive is that I didn't see a lot of fatigue," said Graham. "I saw guys playing hard."

Playing hard, yes. But no player maintains peak performance when tired. They just can't. 

A look at the total yards allowed in each quarter reflects that.

In the first and tired quarters, ASU surrendered just 40 and 53 yards. In the second and fourth, when fatigue reared its head, the Sun Devils gave up 209 and 247. 

Granted, some of the fourth quarter yards can be written off due to the increased role of the reserves, but the overall takeaway remains clear. As the grind of the season wears on and the level of opposition increases dramatically, relying on only your starters is an unsustainable strategy. Quality depth is an essential component to compete at the Pac-12 level, and Graham knows that. 

"We'll rotate guys and play guys and mix guys in," he said.

With San Diego State bringing a run-heavy offense to Tempe, it will be the defensive line that will be most taxed this Saturday. Graham mentioned that he has "great belief" in George Lea and Renell Wren, and that both should play this week.

At the end of the day, it's about doing what gives your team the best chance to win.

"You have to put your best guys on the field," Graham said.

Sometimes, that means taking them off the field, if just for a few plays.

Step away from the ledge

ASU entered Thursday night’s game as a 23.5-point favorite over NMSU. They won by six, and for long stretches of the game, did not look like a Power 5 team facing one of the FBS’ historically-worst programs.

The fan reactions has been...not great.

Social media has been awash in the hottest of takes, ranging from general dismay to writing off the season to calling for Todd Graham’s job.

Tap the brakes.

Was it a great showing? Certainly not. The Sun Devils raised a number of concerns—on both sides of the ball—as they move into the heart of the season. This is a flawed football team, and how (or whether) they address these issues in the next few weeks will determine if they return to a bowl or register a third consecutive losing season.

But it’s by no means a reason to press the panic button.

Week 1 is a tricky time around the entire sport. Just look around the nation. How many “good” teams struggled this past weekend with “bad” teams? Coming off the longest fall camp in program history, with two new coordinators on each side of the ball, some struggles were anticipated. The term “midseason form” exists for a reason. Getting a true read on a team takes more than just one game. If the issues persist again this week, OK, then take a step towards the ledge.

But things could be worse than being 1-0.

After all, you could be Texas A&M.

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