TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- Early in the fourth quarter of Arizona State's season opener on Thursday, head coach Herm Edwards walked up to quarterback Jayden Daniels and running back Rachaad White on the sideline and pointed to the scoreboard.
That is bad football. Bad. I’m a bad coach. That’s bad football, and we have to fix that.
That's not typically the message a coach delivers when his team is leading by 20 points, but it served to illustrated the sloppy nature of the Sun Devils' 41-14 win over Southern Utah.
"I told the team after the game that the Sun Devils actually played the Sun Devils tonight," ASU head coach Herm Edwards said. "It was bad football. It was sloppy football. It was embarrassing football, to be honest. But that being said, I’ve never had a bad win.”
ASU, ranked No. 25 in the AP Poll, was able to overcome major issues with penalties and special teams blunders to cruise to the win. The dynamic backfield duo of Rachaad White and DeaMonte Trayanum combined for four touchdowns in the first half to put the game away.
Meanwhile, ASU's defense forced four turnovers, including two interceptions by linebacker Darien Butler, to keep the Thunderbirds, a FCS program from the Big Sky Conference, in check.
Although the result was never in doubt, Thursday's game gives the Sun Devils plenty to work on as they prepare to face UNLV next week.
“If I say it’s Easter tomorrow, go home and start coloring your eggs.”
- On his players heeding his warning that they'd play too emotionally
ASU entered Thursday's game as a 45-point favorite over the Thunderbirds. The early action suggested that may have been on point.
Sun Devil safety DeAndre Pierce intercepted SUU quarterback Justin Miller on the game's third play and returned the ball to the Thunderbird 3-yard line. On the next play, Trayanum powered in for the score. Despite the extra point being blocked, ASU had a 6-0 lead just 24 seconds into the season.
SUU drove into ASU territory on the next drive, but ASU cornerback Jack Jones forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive lineman D.J. Davidson. The Sun Devils marched down the field, keyed by a 31-yard catch by Andre Johnson, and on a fourth-and-1 from the SUU 26, White burst free for a touchdown.
“I was in a good rhythm,” Daniels said. “Our offense was in a good rhythm. Our receivers were doing what they did, making a couple big catches."
The Thunderbirds were able to answer back, keyed by two personal foul penalties on ASU, including a targeting call that saw defensive end Tyler Johnson get ejected from the game. A 7-yard run by Judd Crockett cut ASU's lead to 13-7, and a squib on the ensuing kickoff was recovered by SUU at the Sun Devils' 33-yard line.
But any hope of an underdog rally was spoiled by Butler, who jumped in front of a slant for an interception. Two drives later, ASU extended their lead with a 1-yard touchdown run by White. After the Sun Devils forced a SUU punt on the next drive, it was Trayanum's turn again. He ran four times for 43 yards, the last carry a 20-yard score for put ASU up 28-7 at halftime.
While the score looked good, the way it was constructed left much to be desired. In the half, ASU committed 11 penalties for 120 yards.
“I kept going to all of them saying, ‘Stop! Stop!’ " Edwards said of the penalties. "Finally when it got to 11, they stopped, because it was halftime.”
In the lead up to Thursday, Edwards knew his team was eager to play a game. However, he sensed that it went a little too far, and that factored in to the early mistakes.
“This team wanted to play football, and they were so excited about playing," Edwards said. "But they got emotional. They wanted to go. I told them to slow down. You’re not going to win the game in the first quarter.”
The discipline was better in the second half, as ASU committed just two penalties. The Sun Devils extended their lead to 34-7 on a 26-yard touchdown run on a reverse by wide receiver Ricky Pearsall. However, Logan Tyler missed the extra point.
ASU received a scare midway through the third quarter when Daniels went down for several minutes after a play. However, it turned out to just be cramping, and after the game, he proclaimed, "I'm feeling good."
David Moore scored a 21-yard rushing touchdown late in the third quarter for SUU's lone score in the second half. The night's final touchdown was a 9-yard run by ASU running back Daniyel Ngata.
Yet despite the comfortable win to open the season, Edwards was left with a bitter taste in his mouth.
“I might not even go home," he said after the game. "I might just watch the tape and get it out of my system, because it was bad.”
The Critical Moment
After the surprise squib kickoff and recovery by SUU, the Thunderbirds stood 33 yards from taking a shocking lead over the Sun Devils.
But when Butler made the interception, any dreams of an upset died.
During the week, ASU defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce and staff had prepared for the SUU passing game, and Butler's play provided a needed payoff for those efforts.
As expected, the backfield duo of White (58 yards on seven carries) and Trayanum (52 on six) starred for the Sun Devils, with each scoring two touchdowns.
One major question for the Sun Devils heading into the season was the passing game, and while it flashed some plays, it was a quiet night through the air given the big lead.
“Our run game was so dominant and we were up by so many points, the coaches made a business decision to get everybody out healthy," Daniels said.
Daniels complete 10 of 12 throws for 132 yards before leaving with the cramps. Trenton Bourguet replaced him and completed 3-of-5 for 38 yards. The quarterbacks spread the ball around. Wide receiver LV Bunkley Shelton had three catches, while four other Sun Devils each had two. Tight end Curtis Hodges led the team with 56 yards.
“Passing game is still not quite sharp yet," Edwards said. "Jayden is getting better with those receivers.”
The offensive line earned praise from Daniels, and was solid but did allow two sacks and six tackles for loss.
On the night, ASU gained 421 yards and average 7.3 yards per play, but the mistakes were the main postgame focus.
“We played sloppy on offense," Daniels said. "We still executed on somethings, but we have to limit the penalties and the mistakes.”
Especially apparent were several penalties committed on the perimeter, forcing Daniels at one point to gather the wide receivers and tight ends to reiterate “We can’t do this. We gotta clean this up.”
“We still put 41 on the board even with that many penalties," Pearsall said, "but it was killing some of our drives, and we can't have that going forward.”
When they played clean, the Sun Devils showed off their potential on offense, but getting that consistency will be crucial for the rest of the season.
“Going forward, we can’t beat a team with this many penalties," said Daniels. “If we want to fulfill our dreams of a Pac-12 championship, we can’t have that many penalties.”
Like the offense, it was a night better on paper than in performance.
ASU gave up just 224 yards and allowed just 3.9 yards per play. The Sun Devils forced four key turnovers. They registered six tackles for loss. But it wasn't a dominating showing.
“I promise you, this is not going to be our best performance on defense," Butler said. "We are going to tighten up the screws. We are going to tighten it up from the line of scrimmage to the secondary.”
Butler's two interceptions were a highlight. So too was the play of defensive tackle D.J. Davidson, who led the team with six tackles, two tackles for loss, and he also batted down a pass at the line. Defensive end Travez Moore, making his debut after transferring from LSU, notched a sack and his pressure on Miller led to the game's first interception.
It was a solid, if unspectacular start for one of the unit's looked at as one of the Pac-12's best.
During the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Rachaad White emerged as one of the most dynamic playmakers in the Pac-12. He averaged 10 yards per carry, reeled off five plays from scrimmage of over 50 yards, and scored six touchdowns.
He picked up right where he left off in Thursday's opener.
The junior college transfer ran for 58 yards and scored two touchdowns, and showed off his signature smooth cuts during a 36-yard punt return in the first half.
It was limited work, but showed that White may be even more dangerous this season.
The Cool Moment
Midway though the fourth quarter, ASU's defensive starters were out of the game. The reserves were in, aiming to finish out the night and make a good impression on the coaches. On a third down, SUU quarterback Tyler Skidmore dropped back to pass when ASU freshman defensive end B.J. Green was able to get into the backfield and take him down for the sack.
“The whole team was excited,” Butler said of the sack. “(Green) comes to work with energy every day. We feed off that, and we want guys like that around us and in this program. He’s a dawg.”
The walk-on from Georgia has been a standout performer in fall camp. Edwards said that during one practice, he he called to Green by his name (Edwards typically uses a player's number). Green was in shock, "Coach, you know who I am?"
“The whole team was excited," Edwards said of Green's sack. "He’s a powerful young guy.”
The Big Question
Can ASU stop beating themselves?
Before the opening kickoff, Edwards told kicker Logan Tyler to "hit a wedge." The senior then launched the ball out of bounds for a penalty.
"He took his driver out," lamented Edwards.
It was the first of many special teams blunders. Tyler had his first extra point blocked and later missed one off the upright. Tyler won the kicking job in camp, but placekicker remains an unsettled position for a team with conference title aspirations, especially after the team learned this week that former kicker Cristian Zendejas, who won the 2019 Sun Bowl Special Teams MVP for ASU, would return.
“The kicking situation is interesting, to say the least," Edwards said.
But beyond the special teams issues, the penalties stood out as the night's main takeaway. The Sun Devils can get away with it against a FCS team, but as they face better competition as the season progresses, the margin for error will disappear.
“There are a lot of things we have to improve upon," Edwards said. "When we stop playing the Sun Devils, we might have a chance to be a pretty good football team. But tonight, we were not.”
The Next Step
ASU will host UNLV on Saturday Sept. 11. The Running Rebels opened their 2021 season with a double overtime loss to FCS opponent Eastern Washington. This will be the second all-time meeting between the programs, with UNLV winning in Tempe in 2008 23-20. Kickoff from Sun Devil Stadium is set for 7:30 p.m.
The Extra Points
- ASU's 13 penalties were the most committed since the 13 committed against NAU in 2010.
- The 135 penalty yards were the most by ASU since 2007.
- White now has eight touchdowns in five career games.
- ASU is now 79-28-2 in season-opening games.