TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- So far, so good.
At the midpoint of their 2019 schedule, Arizona State is in better shape than most anyone expected. Following their 38-34 win over Washington State, the Sun Devils are 5-1 overall, 2-1 in Pac-12 play, and ranked No. 17 in the latest AP poll.
Raise your hand if you thought they'd be there at this juncture?
While the first half has been a success, it has not come easy.
Much like last season, every game has been a hard-fought battle that most often comes down to the wire. ASU's four games against Power 5 opponents have been decided by a combined 17 points.
"These guys are going to give me a heart attack," Edwards said after the Washington State win. "What are y’all doing? I’m 65 years old!”
[Surgeon General's Warning: ASU football is not suitable for pregnant women or those with heart conditions]
Part of this has been due to the team's reliance on young players, including 29 true or redshirt freshmen who have seen action this year. Edwards and his staff are rebuilding the foundation of Sun Devil football while also aiming for the Rose Bowl. It's a tough balancing act, but one from which they're not shying away.
"We're a work in progress,” Edwards said after the Michigan State game. “This is not over yet by any stretch of the imagination. We're going to hit some potholes."
Setbacks have come, and more are undoubtedly on the way. Yet these Sun Devils have shown a resiliency to overcome them more often than not. Some of that may be due to, as Edwards speculates, his young players not knowing any better.
“They don’t know how hard it is," said Edwards of his players after beating Washington State. "This was hard. Two weeks ago against Cal, it was hard. Michigan State, hard. They don’t flinch.”
As the young players develop, Edwards hopes that the wins will come a little easier. But for now, the focus is getting better every week and notching a victory any way they can.
“Our motto is real simple: Stay humble and hungry," Edwards said.
First Half MVP - Jayden Daniels
From the moment he announced his commitment to ASU back in December, the expectations for Daniels have only grown larger. To this point, the true freshman quarterback has met them.
Sure, he's had some "freshman moments." He's missed some open targets on deep balls, and taken some sacks when he should have thrown it away. There's been some mistakes that only experience can fix.
But he's also shown the strong arm, deft passing touch, and running ability that made him such a coveted recruit.
Through six games, he's completing 63 percent of his passes for 1,610 yards, eight touchdowns, and only one interception. He's added 271 yards (pre-sack total) and two more scores rushing.
While his physical tools have impressed, it's been his intangibles that have made him truly special.
Daniels has shown a level of poise rare in players of any age or experience. He's shaken off mistakes, overcome imposing defenses, and made the plays when the Sun Devils have needed them most. So far, he's engineered three game-winning drives.
“He’s just a special player," said ASU offensive coordinator Rob Likens.
Daniels is a star in the making, and his legend seems to grow larger each week.
“I trust the guy. I trust him," Edwards said of Daniels. "I know that he knows when the moment appears, it’s never too big for him. That’s what good players understand. They want the moment. They don’t always succeed, but they’re not afraid of it.”
While true freshmen quarterbacks are often something to be managed, ASU is now relying on theirs.
Offensive Player of the (Half) Year - Brandon Aiyuk
In January, Aiyuk tweeted three numbers. They were easy to overlook, but to the shrewd ASU fan, they recognized them as the school's single-season receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns records, plus one.
881,40615....— Brandon Aiyuk (@THE2ERA) January 14, 2019
It signaled Aiyuk's intent to not only replace N'Keal Harry as the team's go to receiving option, but leave his mark in the record books while doing so. Replacing a first round pick like Harry is a daunting task, but all offseason, Likens raved about Aiyuk's potential.
So far, the senior wideout has delivered.
Entering Week 8, Aiyuk ranks ninth in the FBS with 651 yards, and his 21.0 yards-per-catch average leads the Pac-12. Whether it's going deep or turning a short pass into a long gain with his blazing speed, Aiyuk has emerged as one of the most dangerous weapons in the Pac-12. He already has receptions of 40, 40, 52, 53, 77, and 86 yards on the year. Aiyuk's 424 yards after the catch are the second-most in the country.
Brandon Aiyuk is faster than you pic.twitter.com/gqFkVuwGJA— Brad Denny (@BDenny29) October 12, 2019
“He’s unique with the ball in his hand," Edwards said. “When you get him one-on-one and he gets a crease, he knows how to run with the football.”
If he can keep it up, reaching those three numbers may become a reality.
Also considered: Eno Benjamin
Defensive Player of the (Half) Year - Aashari Crosswell
By the end of last season, true freshman safety Aashari Crosswell had shaken off some early struggles to become an impact player in the Sun Devil secondary.
Through the first half of his sophomore year, Crosswell has elevated his game to the next level.
The numbers are solid, if unspectacular: 22 tackles, six pass breakups, one interception, and a forced fumble. Instead, it's been his ability to cover large swaths of ground and be a reliable presence in coverage that's helped the back end of the ASU defense to be so effective.
His value was highlighted by his absence in the win over Michigan State, as the Spartans' lone touchdown drive came when he was sidelined due to injury.
Also considered: Evan Fields, Cam Phillips, Darien Butler
Best Play - 4th and 13
The Sun Devil offense, behind a reshuffled offensive, had been held in check all day by a dominant Spartan defense. Trailing 7-3 with just 3:34 left, ASU needed to drive 75 yards for the win.
A 40-yard connection between Daniels and Aiyuk got the Sun Devils moving, but they soon faced a fourth-and-8 at the Michigan State 28.
Make that fourth-and-13, after Daniels was flagged for a false start.
With the game on the line and 75,000 very loud Spartans fans yelling, Daniels dropped back, saw a seam, and ran.
Jayden gets it pic.twitter.com/FVkAknb6Ro— Brad Denny (@BDenny29) September 14, 2019
He needed 13 and got 15. Four plays later, Eno Benjamin scored the game-winning touchdown to key the upset of then No. 18 Michigan State.
It would be the first of several examples of how Daniels is able to rise to the moment.
Best Moment - "I got it, Coach"
Early in fourth quarter during ASU's road game against No. 15 Cal, Daniels was sacked and fumbled. Cal recovered, and the Bears were able to turn that into a go-ahead field goal.
Before the ASU offense took the field for the next drive, Edwards walked over to check on his young quarterback.
"It’s time," Edwards said.
“I got it, Coach," Daniels calmly replied.
"Then go do it," said Edwards.
Daniels did it.
With some key throws by Daniels and impressive runs by Benjamin, ASU drove 75 yards in 15 plays. The 6-minute 9-second drive was capped with a three-yard score by Benjamin.
This whole clutch-drive-to-win-a-game thing was officially a trend.
Best Trend - Comfort in the Uncomfortable
Since the start of the 2018 season, 13 of ASU's 19 games have been decided by eight points or less, tied with Texas for the most among the 130 FBS teams, per Jim Thornby at the Pac-12 office.
For a young team like ASU, that could be a recipe for disaster.
However, that's not been the case with Herm Edwards' Sun Devils. Of those 13 games, ASU has won seven, and that includes a 3-1 mark this year.
“When it’s a one-score game, they’re comfortable with the uncomfortable," Edwards said.
As they head into the grind of Pac-12 play, that experience should continue to serve these youthful Sun Devils well.
Worst Trend - Comfortable QBs
ASU's secondary is the deepest group on the roster, and one of the best units in the Pac-12. But no matter how good a group of defensive backs are, they can't consistently cover receivers for too long. They need help from their pass rush to generate pressure on the quarterback.
In ASU's lone loss of the year, the Sun Devils failed to bother Colorado quarterback Steven Montez. The senior was not sacked and routinely had plenty of time in the pocket to find his targets downfield. He torched ASU for 337 yards and three touchdowns, despite playing without top receiver Laviska Shenault.
The pass rushing issues resurfaced in the win against Washington State, as for the second time in three games, the Sun Devils failed to register a sack.
Through six games, ASU has 10 sacks, but just four of them have come against Power 5 opponents. With quality quarterbacks like Tyler Huntley, Kedon Slovis, Justin Herbert, Jake Luton, and Khalil Tate left on the schedule, ASU must get better in disrupting opposing passers.
Status of biggest preseason question - Can Daniels handle the pressure?
Uh, yeah. See above.
A big unanswered question - Can they avoid the wall?
Last season, ASU's defense made big strides but tailed off over the last few weeks. Gonzales was candid when he said that was in part due to the high number of freshmen starting or playing prominent roles hitting the dreaded "freshman wall", the point when their bodies aren't used to the rigors of the longer college season.
This year, the Sun Devils are relying even more on freshmen, with many playing key roles on both sides of the ball. There are two—LaDarius Henderson and Dohnovan West—starting on the offensive line protecting Daniels. A pair of wide receivers are in the rotation. The secondary features newcomers in the two-deep.
A repeat of last year's fade could derail ASU's South title hopes. However, if the coaches can help keep the young players fresh while developing each week, the Sun Devils could make a run.
Another big unanswered question - Can they punch it in?
When ASU gets the ball into the red zone, they come away with points 90 percent of the time. That rate has them tied for 34th in the nation. Not bad, right?
The problem is, they're settling for field goals far too often. In 20 trips inside the opponent's 20, the Sun Devils have just nine touchdowns. That success rate ranks has them tied with Tennessee for 117th in the FBS.
If Arizona State is going to make a run at the South crown, they will need to finish drives with six points instead of coming away with three.
Positional Report Card
Daniels has been everything advertised and then some. As long as he stays healthy, ASU will be in good shape. True freshman Joey Yellen is the backup, but has not seen any action. Redshirt junior quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole has found a role on special teams in recent weeks, while true freshman Ethan Long has rushed six times for 32 yards out of the Sparky formation.
Running Backs: B+
Defenses keying on the run and offensive line struggles have kept Benjamin from replicating the type of numbers he posted a year ago, but he remains a dynamic playmaker as a runner and a receiver. With the line now solidified, he's become more effective in recent weeks. The primary concern is the depth behind him. Benjamin has 144 touches for far, while backups A.J. Carter and Isaiah Floyd have just 22. If Benjamin misses any length of time, the Sun Devils could be in trouble.
Wide Receivers: B
Aiyuk has been spectacular. Senior Kyle Williams has been a reliable presence on short passes and turned 14 of his 24 receptions into first downs. Frank Darby has made some plays downfield (11 catches, 198 yards) but continues to struggle with drops. True freshman Ricky Pearsall (4 catches, 98 yards) and Jordan Kerley (4 for 71) had each made their mark in key moments. Redshirt freshman Geordon Porter was hampered with injury early, but could be a factor own the stretch with his size (6-foot-2) and speed combination.
Tight Ends: C-
Senior Tommy Hudson remains a steady blocker, but has been a non-factor in the passing game (one catch, seven yards). Converted wide receiver Curtis Hodges has seen most of the targets to the tight ends and has made five grabs for 58 yards but has been most notable for some costly drops. True freshman Nolan Matthews has a 13-yard catch and an intriguing skillset.
Offensive Line: C+
The surprise departure of Zach Robertson and the injury to Cade Cote threw the line into disarray for the first two weeks. But a shuffle for the Michigan State game—seeing senior Cohl Cabral was moved back to center, with freshman LaDarius Henderson taking his spot at left tackle and fellow freshman Dohnovan West sliding to right guard—has stuck and the results have steadily improved. While the pass protection has been better than the run blocking, there remains a ways to go for this group to be considered a strength.
Defensive Line: C
Heading into the year, I had more concern with the defensive line than the quarterback situation, and the first half has only reinforced that. Ends Jermayne Lole (3.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL) and George Lea (1.5, 2.5) have each earned Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Week awards, and tackle D.J. Davidson has (1.5, 2.5) has flashed stretches of dominance. The issue has been consistency, especially in generating a pass rush. Roe Wilkins (8 tackles) and Shannon Forman (5 tackles) have provided solid depth, and T.J. Pesefea has come on lately to help shore up the middle.
Heading into the season, true sophomores Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler switched positions, with Robertson sliding to the middle and Butler shifting outside. Both have been solid contributors (73 total tackles), but have not yet replicated the big plays each made a year ago (Robertson, last year's team leader in sacks and TFL, has just 0.5 of each). Senior Khaylan Kearse-Thomas has made up some of that production (1.5 sacks, team-high 5.0 sacks). The team has missed the pass rushing skill of Tyler Johnson (11 tackles, 3.5 TFL), who has battled nagging injuries. Kyle Soelle and Case Hatch (seven tackles each) have seen plenty of action as capable reserves.
Facing Washington State may skew the overall numbers, but the 5 in Gonzales' 3-3-5 has been good.
The cornerback tandem of Kobe Williams (17 tackles, five pass breakups) and Chase Lucas (22 tackles) has been good, and USC transfer Jack Jones has been a welcome addition as the third corner, posting a team-best nine pass breakups. He's shown some rust from his year away from football, but also flashed the skills that made him a 5-star recruit.
A preseason illness to Tyler Whiley allowed Evan Fields to step into the starting Tillman safety role, and he's not looked back. Fields leads the team with 42 tackles, while Whiley has 14 and a pass breakup backing him up. Ranger safeties Aashari Crosswell and Cam Phillips (35 tackles, two TFL, four pass breakups) have been very good, while freshmen Kejuan Markham and Willie Harts have provided quality reps.
The one deficiency of the group is in picking off passes. Gonzales set a season goal of 20 interceptions for his defense, but through six games, they have just two. Only four teams have fewer.
Special Teams: B
Who would have thought kicker drama would be the big special teams story at the halfway mark?
When an injury sidelined kicker Brandon Ruiz to start the year, Cristian Zendejas stepped in. He made his first eight field goal attempts, which earned him a scholarship. Ruiz's status remained up in the air, with Edwards maintaining he was still recovering. Ruiz then shocked many when he tweeted his intention to transfer from ASU next summer. Zendejas has cooled since his hot start, missing three of his last six attempts. His range is limited, but in an age of #CollegeKickers, he's a reliable option inside of 45 yards.
Another area impacted by Ruiz's absence is on kickoffs, where Josh Plaster has taken over those duties. ASU's touchback percentage has fallen from 61.5 to 18.2.
Punter Michael Turk opened his ASU career by breaking the NCAA single-game punting average record. He's blasted 10 of his 27 kicks over 50 yards and pinned 16 inside the 20. He's currently 11th in the FBS in average at 46.48.
The return game has been solid with Aiyuk handling the bulk of the punt (9.4 yards/return) and kickoff (26.2) duties.