Takes and Trends: Five items to track after ASU's Week 3 loss

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Photo: Sun Devil Athletics Photo: Sun Devil Athletics
LUBBOCK, TX (3TV/CBS 5) -

An awful start eventually turned into a thrilling comeback. Ultimately, it ended with disappointment.

Arizona State overcame an 18-point halftime deficit to tie Texas Tech late in the fourth quarter, but the Red Raiders were able to ultimately pull away with a 52-45 victory.

The Sun Devils fell to 1-2 on the season, and they now return home to open up Pac-12 play against Oregon on Saturday.

In this week’s edition of Takes and Trends, we’ll examine five key points to come out from Saturday’s loss.

Air it Out

Earlier on Saturday, ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins took a nap. During the nap, he had a dream in which his sophomore wide receiver N’Keal Harry had a huge game.

Score one for prescience.

Harry set career highs with 13 receptions for 148 yards, and his 21-yard fourth quarter touchdown tied the game at 45-45.

"He's a man amongst boys out there,” Wilkins said. “Anytime we have a guy one-on-one with him, my radar goes off. He made some really, really special plays tonight."

ASU fans knew Harry—a former 5-star recruit out of Chandler High School—was special after a dynamic freshman year in 2016. What they didn’t know was just how deep the team’s wide receivers were. They found out tonight.

With starter John Humphrey out with a left knee injury, sophomore Kyle Williams had his coming out party. Williams caught all seven passes thrown his way, including two touchdowns, and gained a career-best 111 yards.

"We had a good gameplan this week,” Williams said. “Coaches believe in all of the receivers, not just me. They give us chances to go out there and make plays."

Jalen Harvey provided three big catches, moving the chains twice on a third-quarter touchdown drive. Ryan Newsome also made his ASU debut after missing the first two games due to injury. He caught just one pass (for two yards), but his punt return helped to set up ASU’s game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.

Harry continues to grow into a true No. 1 wide receiver, and with Williams, Harvey, and the hopeful return of Humphrey into the fold, ASU’s passing game should continue to have more big nights like they did on Saturday.

Episode III: Return of the Run Game

ASU’s aerial attack was not the only element clicking on Saturday. Absent during the season’s first two games, the Sun Devil running game made its presence known in Lubbock.

It was a far cry from last year’s meeting between these teams, in which ASU ran for 301 yards and Kalen Ballage had seven rushing scores. But it showed enough to give hope that what was perceived to be the team’s strength heading into the year was not dead yet.

"Our deal was to establish the run,” said ASU head coach Todd Graham.

Demario Richard returned to the lineup after missing most of the first two games. He brought his usual power running style, and showed off an improved burst through the hole on his way to 53 yards, including a touchdown in the second quarter.

Ballage led the way with 56 yards and a touchdown of his own. Even the wide receivers got into the mix, with Harry gaining 17 on an end around, and Frank Darby found the endzone on a 21-yard backwards pass.

After gaining just 127 yards on the ground over the first two games, the 168 put up by the Sun Devils were a glimmer of hope in a dimming season.

Another Step Forward

The most encouraging development for the Sun Devil offense came at the most crucial position.

Quarterback Manny Wilkins was impressive under pressure once again, completing 27 of his 41 throws for 326 yards and three touchdowns, and he has yet to toss an interception this season.

"I think we did a really good job of going out there and making some plays,” Wilkins said. “We played with a lot of heart."

The reshuffled offensive line continued to struggle, and Wilkins was once again facing heavy pressure from the defense. However, he continued to stand tall, take hits, and lead his team when the chips were down.

“I was really proud of how Manny has taken care of the football,” Graham said.

Through three games, Wilkins is completing over 68 percent of his passes, and has not thrown an interception. He is being both a game manager and a playmaker, something an offense still in search of an identity needs.

D’Oh!

There were some definite positives seen in Lubbock, but they were not enough to overshadow the negatives. ASU is still a deeply flawed football team.

Just like the last two years, the Sun Devils are still a bad defensive team, especially against the pass. On Saturday, Texas Tech quarterback Nic Shimonek threw for 543 yards and six touchdowns, tying the record for most touchdowns ever surrendered by ASU in a single game.

Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense relies heavily on quick, short throws that force a defense to take good angles and make sure tackles. For long stretches, ASU did neither, and they fell behind 21-3 in the first quarter, and 35-17 by halftime.

“We know we messed up in the first half,” said senior linebacker D.J. Calhoun of the half in which Texas Tech gained 355 yards.

The problems weren't just on defense, however.

For a second straight week, ASU’s special teams made critical errors.

Brandon Ruiz missed a 41-yard field goal on the game’s opening drive, and a bizarre punt formation allowed Texas Tech to easily block a punt near the end of the first half that resulted in another Red Raider touchdown.

"It felt like the brakes were coming off,” Graham said.

On offense, the search for answers along the offensive line continue. Despite a lineup shuffle that saw Zach Robertson take over at left tackle, and former left tackle Cohl Cabral take over at center, blocking in both the running and passing games suffered. Cabral also had a very low snap that resulted in a fumble that was recovered by Texas Tech in the first quarter.

"At the end of the day, we just didn't play good enough,” said Graham.

Giving up big plays, and losing the war in the trenches: Those are some glaring holes that ASU still has to address as the heart of the season begins.

Down, But Not Out

The Sun Devils are 1-2 on the year. Fan support and patience is dwindling. At this point, they don’t do anything particularly well.

But there is hope, for one big reason. They showed that they still have some fight in them.

In previous Takes and Trends, I’ve highlighted the clear lack of intensity the team has shown in either of their first two games. That absence of fight is a troubling trend that dated back to the end of last season.

Had the team given up already? Were they quitting on their coach?

Not yet, at least. The Sun Devils took some punches early, got knocked to the canvas, but got up and battled until the final bell.

“I've never really seen my team fight like this,” Calhoun said. “This is our breaking point right here."

Early on, they lost their best defensive player when Koron Crump went out with a knee injury. They fell behind by 18-points on three different occasions. They committed some mistakes that put them in a deep hole.

Yet they rallied. They showed heart. That shouldn't be overlooked.

"For us to come back like that, it shows a lot,” Calhoun said.

They had a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, but after scoring touchdowns on four consecutive possessions to open the second half, their fifth drive stalled out. Texas Tech would go on to score the game-winning touchdown with just 1:55 left.

"It hurts,” Wilkins said. “To come back like that, we could have won the game, should have won the game."

"Our guys really felt like we were going to win that football game,” Graham said.

They didn’t, but perhaps they finally ignited the fire that was missing. The Sun Devils have enough talent on both sides of the ball to make a run at a bowl bid, but they need to show the fight that was on display in Lubbock to get there.

"We learn from this,” Calhoun said. “It's all in the past now."

As for their future, it starts with a home game against Oregon to open Pac-12 play. In conference, they are 0-0. They took their fair share of lumps through these first three weeks, but with a clean slate, they have some hope. Finally.

"It's on to conference play,” Wilkins said. “Our goals are still in front of our eyes."

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