ASU dominates NAU in season opener 40-3
The Devils got 2022 off to a promising start
TEMPE (3TV/CBS 5) -- As new Arizona State quarterback Emory Jones settled into a chair in front of the media following Thursday night’s season opener, he exhaled before providing a summation of the game.
“That was fun.”
After a jittery beginning, the Sun Devils took care of business and dominated Northern Arizona University 40-3 to open the 2022 season. Jones and the offense put up an impressive showing on the ground, true freshman kicker Carter Brown connected on all four of his field goal attempts, and the ASU defense held a potent Lumberjack offense in check.
Despite facing NAU, a FCS-level team, ASU head coach Herm Edwards was impressed with his team, noting some concern coming into the night with 43 new players on his roster.
“We were favored to win, and we won, and that’s a good thing,” Edwards said. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”
“We were picked to win. It’s easy to say you’re supposed to win, but then you gotta go do it.”
It was a tumultuous offseason that included everything except football: The lingering black cloud of the NCAA investigation, a wave of key transfer portal departures, dozens of new players added, and widespread predictions of a difficult season ahead. Thursday night, the Sun Devils were finally able to put that aside and play a football game.
While they entered the night as 27-point favorites over NAU, the Sun Devils were fully aware that the Lumberjacks had pulled off a historic upset of Arizona in Tucson last season. So while the Sun Devils were batting the Lumberjacks, they’d do so while also navigating a continued wave of unknowns.
“We didn’t know what kind of team we would be,” Jones said. “We’ve been practicing and going against our team, but it’s different when you get out here with the light on.”
After forcing a NAU punt on the game’s opening drive, ASU marched down the field, highlighted by a 19-yard catch by tight end Messiah Swinson. However, the drive stalled inside the Lumberjack 10-yard line, and Brown’s 27-yard field goal gave the Sun Devils an early 3-0 lead.
NAU had a chance to tie up the game early in the second quarter, but a botched snap on field goal try ended that threat. ASU responded with an impressive drive down the field. A 20-yard run by wide receiver Charles Hall IV was followed by pair of completions from Jones to Gio Sanders for 21 yards and Elijhah Badger for 15 to get into the redzone. After an initial touchdown run by Jones was called back upon review, he snuck it in on the following play to put ASU up 10-0.
“I was definitely a little amped up and excited at the beginning of the game, but I settled down,” Jones said.
With the early game nerves having worn off, ASU acted quickly to build their lead. Following a three-and-out by NAU, Daniyel Ngata gained 29 yards on the first play of the next Sun Devil drive. A targeting penalty on NAU and an 18-yard catch by Swinson got ASU to the 4-yard line, and X Valladay took it the rest of the way on the next play for the touchdown.
“It’s been like 100 and some odd days, I was ready to go play a football game with my new team,” Valladay said. “It was a great feeling to be back on the field with my football family.”
With the half winding down, ASU’s defense made sure the offense had another chance. NAU quarterback R.J. Martinez was picked off by senior linebacker Kyle Soelle, and two plays later, Jones was back in the endzone to put ASU up 24-0.
“We went in with the mindset to run the football, and we accomplished that,” Edwards said.
With that quick scoring drive, another NAU three-and-out set ASU up with the ball with 1:12 left in the half. Edwards, acknowledging a need to be more aggressive this year offensively, had the offense try to get into scoring distance before the break. However, Jones was sacked and fumbled on the first play, and NAU recovered at the ASU 28.
“I told the defense, ‘That’s on me. Bail me out,’” Edwards said.
They did as their coach said, holding the Lumberjacks to a field goal to cut the lead at halftime to 24-3.
Early in the game, Edwards felt that his running backs, particularly Valladay, were running hesitantly. He challenged them, telling the group that with NAU bringing eight defenders into the box, the eighth man would be unblocked and their responsibility. Edwards felt that the group, particularly, Valladay, got the message.
“I think he got mad at me, which was good,” Edwards said. “Then he really started running.”
On the first possession of the second half, Valladay had runs of nine, 20, and 27 yards, the final one taking him into the endzone for a touchdown.
“X is crazy dynamic,” Jones said. “He can break out and score at any time.”
The ASU defense appeared to get in on the scoring action on the next drive, with safety Chris Edmonds taking a tipped ball interception 50 yards for a score. But a holding penalty on Omarr Norman-Lott negated the score. ASU’s offense couldn’t punch it in, settling for a 36-yard field goal from Brown.
With ASU’s defense continuing to stifle the Lumberjacks, Brown connected from 44 yards at the end of the third and again from that same distance early in the fourth quarter to round out the night’s scoring in the comfortable ASU victory.
The Critical Moment
ASU held a comfortable, yet undecisive, 17-0 lead late in the second quarter. That’s when Soelle made a diving interception of a Martinez pass, thanks in part to pressure from B.J. Green.
Valladay reeled off a 28-yard run on the first play of the drive. Jones took it the final 17 yards into the endzone to effectively ice the game and end any thought of an upset.
With so many new pieces, the offense was expected to be a work in progress early in the year. Given the caliber of opponent on Thursday, Edwards admitted the team kept things basic on offense and “just did some things over and over.” Even still, the unit produced 419 yards, including 267 on the ground, and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
One of the primary focuses of the night was on Jones, the former Florida starter who transferred to ASU over the summer. After the early jitters, he settled in nicely. He wasn’t asked to make many throws, but was effective when he was, completing 13 of 18 for 152 yards.
“Quarterback was very calm,” Edwards said. “I thought he stood in the pocket well. I thought he made some throws. Missed a couple, but that’s something to do with the familiarity with the receivers.”
Jones spread the ball around to six different pass catchers on the day.
“I told y’all those were some playmakers,” Jones said with a wry smile. “I’ve been waiting for this moment to go see these guys perform.”
Badger led the team with four receptions, while the 6-foot-7 Swinson topped the Devils with 50 yards receiving, and showed he can be a matchup nightmare for defenses.
“Messiah is a big target,” Jones said. “You have people bouncing off of him.”
The passing game was not needed due to the success that the Sun Devils had on the ground. Valladay ran for 116 yards on 15 carries and two touchdowns in his ASU debut, and Ngata added 60 yards on 10 attempts. The shifty Valladay and explosive Ngata hinted at a potent one-two punch combination.
“We want multiple guys to touch the ball,” Valladay said. “We want guys to have opportunities.”
Jones added 48 yards rushing with two touchdowns, and while Edwards appreciates the value of a dual-threat quarterback, he wants Jones to be smarter about his running, saying he may have to teach him how to slide.
“We’re going to have a conversation,” Edwards said of Jones. “You gotta know when the journey is over.”
One area of concern was on third down. ASU converted just four of their 13 chances, which led to Brown’s four field goal chances. Against better competition, which is coming this week, ASU must do better.
“We cannot let third downs get away from us offensively,” Edwards said.
Given the large talent advantage ASU had over the NAU defense and a vanilla game plan, it’s hard to make meaningful declarations about the performance, but it was a promising start that can instill confidence moving forward.
Any time you hold an opponent to three points and 120 yards, it’s a good night. But it could have been even better.
Penalties negated two interceptions that ASU defenders returned for touchdowns on the night. While impactful, that was about the biggest complaint on the night.
ASU’s front seven was able to totally control the Lumberjack running game. Kevin Daniels, coming off a 1,100-yard season, was held to 12 yards on 11 carries. Knowing that ASU’s pass rush was potent, NAU opted to have Martinez throw quick passes. While he did complete 19 of his 29 throws, they only gained 95 yards, as ASU’s new-look secondary denied the long balls and made sure tackles to limit run-after-the-catch opportunities.
Linebackers Merlin Robertson and Kyle Soelle led the team with five tackles each. Defensive end Travez Moore, in his first action since tearing his ACL early last season, paced the team with 1.5 tackles-for-loss.
“I was a little scared at first, but once I stepped on the grass, it was like a bolt of energy came in,” Moore said. “I felt good. It was a long nine months of recovery, so I was excited.”
It will only get tougher from here on out, but it was a good start for the unit.
“There’s a lot to learn from it, but if you can hold a team to three points, that’s always a good night for defense,” Edwards said.
One of the defining traits that led to last season falling short of expectations was the sloppy play and lack of discipline that led to ASU being one of the nation’s most penalized teams. Cleaning up their act was a major point of emphasis during the offseason. So how did it go?
Pretty well. Sort of. Mostly.
The two penalties—an offside call that gave NAU a free play and a hold during a return—wiped out interception returns for touchdowns. The Sun Devils also committed a false start and a facemask on a NAU third down. But that was...it. Just four penalties for 35 yards. It was a welcomed change for a team that averaged over eight penalties for 78 yards in 2021.
“You’re going to get a foul or two,” Edwards said, “but if you average four fouls, five fouls a game, you’re OK.”
ASU was indeed OK on Thursday night. The Sun Devils’ Rose Bowl dreams were derailed last year because they continually beat themselves. If ASU is to surprise in 2022, they will need to continue to keep their act clean.
The Next Step
ASU will hit the road for a major test next Saturday when they face No. 12 Oklahoma State in Stillwater. The Cowboys opened up their season with a 58-44 win over Central Michigan on Thursday night, in which the Chippewas scored 22 fourth-quarter points to make it a game.
The Extra Points
- With the four made field goals tonight, ASU is halfway to matching last season’s total. With Brown’s two makes from over 40 yards, the Sun Devils have already doubled the 2021 mark they made from over 40 yards.
- The 120 yards allowed by ASU were the fourth-fewest by the program since 1996.
- Joey Ramos, a former Arizona high school product who transfer to ASU from Iowa State, made the start at right tackle. However, he was helped off the field in the first half with an ankle injury. Edwards said he is hopeful he will be able to back this week.
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