TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- As Arizona State prepared to take the field on Saturday night, head coach Herm Edwards had a message for his team.
On the heels of last week's penalty- and mistake-ridden loss to BYU, he told his players to play free and not cautious. He also pleaded with them not to commit a penalty on the first play of the game, after being flagged 16 times last week.
“Don’t do that to me. I’m too old for that, man.”
They didn't do that to him. Instead, they seized control against Colorado early, cut down on the mistakes, and pulled away in the second half on the way to a 35-13 win. Although it wasn't a perfect win, it was a much needed course correction for the young season.
“If we come out and play clean, we can put up wins like this," said ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels.
ASU improves to 3-1 on the season and 1-0 in Pac-12 play.
“I didn’t want us to play cautious. I wanted us to play free.”
Last week's loss not only dropped ASU from the Top 25, it also sent Sun Devil fans into a panic. Many saw the countless self-inflicted mistakes and errors as a sign of a team unraveling, and one that was perhaps buckling under the pressure of their lofty preseason expectations and an NCAA investigation.
Coming home to open up conference play against a reeling Colorado Buffaloes team would provide the Sun Devils a chance to either right their ship...or lean more into those troubling trends.
ASU punted on the game's initial drive, but the Sun Devil defense responded by pushing Colorado back and forcing a punt of their own. That kick landed in the dangerous hands of ASU returner D.J. Taylor, who returned the kick into Buffalo territory. After missing the BYU game with an injury, it was the first of several big returns on the night.
“I wouldn’t fool around with that guy, but I’m glad they do," Edwards said of Taylor. "He’s going to give you the hidden yards.”
With the good field position, Daniels led ASU on a six-play drive that ended with him running seven yards for the first quarter's lone touchdown.
Colorado's offense—held to just 63 yards in a last week's 30-0 loss to Minnesota—finally got some momentum late in the quarter and was in position for a 46-yard field goal try early in the second quarter. However, ASU cornerback Jack Jones was able to get enough of his hand on the kick to send the kick well short.
On the ensuing drive, Daniels connected with tight end Curtis Hodges for gains of 26 and 12 yards to get inside Buffalo territory. Following a roughing the passer penalty, ASU running back Rachaad White scored on an 11-yard run.
“They were going to load the box and make the run game tough, so we had to use the perimeter a little bit and try to get outside," ASU offensive coordinator Zak Hill said.
The Buffaloes finally got on the board just before halftime thanks to a 51-yard field goal by Cole Becker. The three points were the first scored by Colorado over a span of 25 drives. It cut the deficit to 14-3 and gave the Buffaloes a spark they carried over into the first drive of the third quarter.
Two runs by Jarek Broussard picked up a quick 20 yards. Quarterback Brendon Lewis then found Ty Robinson for 26, and then five straight Alex Fontenot runs covered the remaining 29 yards to close the gap to 14-10.
"We went to the stuff we think we do well," said Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell, "and I think those guys are motivated to come out in the second half and put some points on the board."
With the momentum now with the Buffaloes, it fell on the ASU offense to mount a response, and they did so in quick order.
Bracketed by a pair of White runs, Daniels connected with wide receivers Johnny Wilson and Lavon Bunkley-Shelton for sizeable gains inside the Colorado redzone. ASU wide receiver Elijhah Badger, making the first touch of his college career, turned an end around upfield for a 17-yard touchdown.
"We did some key things this week to fix things up and Jayden led that group," said White of the wide receivers. "We trusted the receivers and they got us home, the passing game got us home, that's all that matters.”
As the Sun Devil defense continued to keep the Buffalo offense in check, ASU went to their bag of tricks again early in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
On second-and-10 from the Buffalo 30, Daniels threw a backwards pass to wide receiver Ricky Pearsall, who tossed to White across the field. White then turned upfield, made a few moves, and found his way into the endzone.
ASU would score again on their next drive, with four Daniyel Ngata's runs setting up Daniels' 15-yard touchdown run.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the result no longer in doubt, Colorado tacked on a field goal.
The Critical Moment
Last season against UCLA, ASU dialed up the same trick play that had Pearsall throwing to White. In that game, White gained 52 yards but did not score.
After the drive, Pearsall came up to White and asked “You couldn’t score for me?"
It was something that stuck with White, so when the call came down on Saturday night, he had just one thought.
"I got to score for him.”
Edwards had a much different thought when he learned of Hill's call.
An admitted old-school adherent to football principles, Edwards will shake his head when he sees the trick plays run in practice. When he saw that play recently, he asked, "Really, you’re going to do that one?”
And when Hill made the call early in the fourth quarter? “You gotta be kidding me!"
As Pearsall let the ball go, Edwards initially thought it was going to be intercepted.
Thankfully for Edwards' state of mind, it worked again and helped close the door on ASU's win. “When it works, what can I say? It worked," he said.
He admitted after the game, albeit begrudgingly, that he understands that trick plays have their place in the Sun Devil offense.
“The players like that stuff," he said. "You keep the players entertained by doing that.”
Against one of the Pac-12 better defenses, ASU's offense had a promising, if imperfect, showing.
In the first half, the Sun Devils were having success through the air and on the ground, but mistakes prevented them from doing more damage than their two touchdowns. Later in the game, their execution improved, allowing their superior talent to be on full display.
"In the first half, we had sustained drives, but we didn’t capitalize," Daniels said. "That was the main thing. We just finished drives and that’s what we harped on all week at practice, and we harped at halftime and then we went out and executed it.”
ASU was again without running back DeaMonte Trayanum, so White and Ngata carried the load out of the backfield. It was a solid, if unspectacular showing. White rushed for just 37 yards on 11 carries, but scored two touchdowns, and Ngata again provided a spark with 33 yards on seven attempts. Daniels led the team with 75 yards on the ground.
“We can’t always run the ball, run the ball, run the ball because people are stacking the box," Edwards said.
That presented both pressure and opportunity for the passing game. All offseason and through the season's early games, questions about ASU's passing offense were at the forefront. Saturday was the best showing of the season so far. The rapport between Daniels and his receivers looked better. the drops were reduced, but not eliminated. After not having a player reach 70 receiving yards in any of the first three games of the season, ASU had three do so tonight: Bunkley-Shelton (76), White (70), and Wilson (70). Hodges and Jalin Conyers, the two top tight ends, added three catches.
All told, the Sun Devils gained 439 yards, averaged 7.4 yards per play, and did not commit a turnover. There were some things to build upon as the season progresses, but tonight, it got the job done.
"We always want to run the ball, but in reality as an offense we want to be 50-50 (run-pass)," White said. "You know our mentality, we got the win and that’s all that matters."
Facing the worst offense in the conference, ASU's veteran defense did a solid job. They held the Buffaloes to single touchdown and allowed just 4.1 yards per play. Perhaps most crucially, they avoided the crippling penalties from last week.
“The emphasis was just to come out and play a clean game," said linebacker Darien Butler. "We just cleaned it up and did exactly what we thought we could do.”
Facing intense pressure, Lewis completed just seven of 17 passes for 67 yards. ASU registered three sacks, led by Joe Moore's 1.5, logged five pressures, nd consistently made the young quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket.
“Coaches had a good idea of what they were going to do with their protections, so in practice we prepared for how we were going to attack," Butler said.
The feat was made more impressive by the absence of senior cornerback Chase Lucas, who was injured against BYU. Despite missing their leader, the secondary played well, allowing just one pass over 10 yards.
“We’re cat coverage. Cover your cat," Edwards said. "We play a lot of man-to-man, and when you do that, the quarterback has to hold the ball.”
The Sun Devils were also good against the run. Colorado totaled 183 yards on the ground, but 52 came on their final drive with the game out of hand and facing ASU's reserves. Aside from that drive, ASU allowed 131 yards on the ground and just 3.6 yards per carry.
The linebackers were active. Merlin Robertson led the way with nine tackles, Butler added seven, and Kyle Soelle had 2.5 tackles for loss.
Quarterback Jayden Daniels has been under fire this season.
ASU's offense has no yet found its stride, with the passing game in particular under scrutiny. After the win against UNLV in which he rushed for a career-high 125 yards, Daniels faced criticism he took off too early and abandoned his reads. He started strong against BYU, but he and the rest of the offense unraveled with repeated mistakes and misfires.
Saturday against Colorado was his best showing of the season so far. He consistently made good decisions, whether it was in the pocket looking downfield, sensing pressure and scrambling, or reading defenses in the run game.
“This was one of his better nights," Edwards said. "He sat in the pocket and surveyed the situation. He made some throws.”
He flashed the potential that tantalized fans during his freshman season in 2019. He completed 18 of 25 passes for 236 yards, and rushed for 75 and two scores.
“Teams see me as a threat with my legs, so as soon as I leave the pocket, all eyes are going to be on me," Daniels said. "That’s something we worked on. If I leave the pocket, work to get open. I want to throw the ball before I run it.”
The proficiency of the passing attack may very well decide how far ASU goes in 2021. If Daniels and the receivers can continue to develop and become threats downfield, it will make the Sun Devil offense a formidable attack.
“As he gains confidence with the young receivers, it’ll get better because it’ll have to be," Edwards said.
The Big Picture
At 2-1 in their non-conference slate, questions and sharp criticisms surrounded ASU. Was their uncharacteristic sloppy play a fluke or the beginning of a troubling and dangerous trend? Had the coaching staff lost the team? Was this going to be the same old Devils?
A win over Colorado is not a definitive answer, but it's a good start. They stopped hurting themselves and let their talent and scheme shine.
“We just sent a message to ourselves," Daniels said. "We don’t worry about the outside noise. We worry about what's in this building. At the end of the day, that’s all we got.”
If the Sun Devils can continue to play clean(ish), they will remain among the favorites to take the Pac-12 South. At 1-0 in conference play, and others in the division struggling, all of their goals remain attainable.
“We’re not going to play cautious. We’re going to play Sun Devil football," Edwards said. "We’re going to play physical. We’re going to play fast. We just have to play smarter.”
Progress was made on Saturday, and much more will need to be made for the Sun Devils to make a run at their second South crown.
“We got it cleaned up some, and we have to continue to clean it up. It was good to bounce back.”
The Next Step
ASU will hit the road next week for another South division battle against UCLA. The Bruins entered the week ranked No. 24 and improved to 3-1 on the year after a 35-24 home win over Stanford.
The Extra Points
- The is the first time since Edwards took over after the 2017 season that ASU has won their Pac-12 opener.
- White has scored 13 touchdowns in eight games as a Sun Devil.
- Saturday was the ninth consecutive game in which ASU has rushed for at least 150 yards.
- ASU freshman DL B.J. Green was ejected for targeting in the first half. He logged 0.5 sacks before the penalty.