TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- A win is a win, but they're not created equally.
As expected, Arizona State got a victory over Sacramento State on Friday night. However, the fashion in which the Sun Devils put together the 19-7 left a bitter taste in their mouths.
“You go into the locker room, and you’d think we got beat by 50," said ASU head coach Herm Edwards.
ASU entered the game against the FCS level Hornets as 33.5-point favorites, but poor offensive line play led to a night full of offensive struggles that nearly spoiled another quality defensive showing.
“As an offense, we didn’t play to the standard we set for the week," said Sun Devil quarterback Jayden Daniels. "We got complacent. Not playing how we can play."
The win improves ASU to 2-0 on the season, but the schedule gets considerably more difficult starting this week with a road trip to Michigan State. A showing like ASU put forth on Friday night simply won't get it done in the weeks ahead, and the Sun Devils know it.
“They have to look within the group now," Edwards. "They have to look within the guys in the locker room how we’re going to get this thing fixed. We’re all together here. We’re not going anywhere, and we got to get this fixed.”
Things started promisingly enough. On the first play of the game, Daniels connected with Brandon Aiyuk for a 24-yard gain.
Unfortunately, that would account for nearly half of the team's yardage in the opening quarter.
“Coach Herm talked about it all week," Daniels. "We have to set the tone, and we really didn’t do that as an offense. I didn’t set the tone myself. We had a big play the first play of the game, then we stalemated for most of the first half.”
After the lackluster opening quarter, ASU's special teams unit appeared to give the team a much-needed spark. Aiyuk returned a punt 38 yards to set ASU up at the Hornets' nine-yard line early in the second quarter.
“I took a chance because I saw a guy a yard in front of me,” Aiyuk said. “They were lining up with two gunners to the left, so I knew there was going to be a lot of space to the right.”
Three plays later, Daniels found running back A.J. Carter with a pass, but Carter fumbled just before crossing the goal line, and Sacramento State's Daron Bland recovered.
"You can’t make those errors," Edwards said of Carter. "Hopefully, the next time he’s in the game, that won’t be part of his equation.”
During their other drives of the half, ASU's reshuffled offensive line failed to win at the point of attack. The running game managed just 16 yards and a paltry 1.6 yards per carry total in the first half, while Daniels was under consistent pressure. Sacramento State defenders were a consistent presence in the Sun Devil backfield.
“They were going to shoot gaps, and that’s what they did," Edwards said. "They shot some gaps on us and got penetration."
Those disruptions led to ASU converting just two of eight third down attempts in the first half.
Thankfully for Edwards and his team, the Sun Devil defense was stout. They thwarted the Hornets throughout the half, holding them to just 3.3 yards per play, and most crucially, they stopped a fourth-and-1 attempt by Sacramento State from their own 33 late in the second quarter.
“We’re all held accountable as a defense," said defensive tackle D.J. Davidson, who had 2.5 tackles for loss on the night. "(Defensive coordinator Danny) Gonzales holds us to a high standard to not let anyone score. It’s our responsibility to keep the offense going and build momentum for them.”
With that field position, ASU drove down to the Hornet five-yard line, but a poor snap by true freshman center Dohnovan West flew over the head of Ethan Long, resulting in a 13-yard loss. Kicker Cristian Zendejas was able to make a 36-yard field goal for the half's only points.
ASU extended their lead to 6-0 with their first drive of the second half, and appeared to finally open things up later in the quarter when Daniels hit Frank Darby for a 68-yard touchdown. However, it was called back for a blindside block on Aiyuk which occurred away from the play.
“That’s just bad football," Aiyuk admitted. "Those were the emotions of the game, and I let it get to me.”
ASU settled for another field goal to extend the lead to 9-0, but it was too close to ASU's comfort.
“We got into a position where we needed our defense to play as good as they did tonight," said Edwards. "That becomes tenuous. We can’t keep living like that."
Edwards' defense was able to keep the Hornets in check, allowing just 10 yards of offense in the third quarter.
Zendejas' fourth field goal of the game opened the fourth quarter and extended the Sun Devils' lead to 12-0. ASU threatened again on their next drive, but on a fourth-and-two from the Hornet 29, Eno Benjamin was dropped short of the sticks.
“No consistency on our offense at all, moving the ball in increments. It seems to be a big play or nothing and punt,” Edwards said. “Way too much penetration by defenses in our backfield.”
Sacramento State was able to seize on that momentum.
A coverage breakdown led to a 40-yard reception by Pierre Williams, and two plays later, Kevin Thomson found Tao McClinton for a touchdown to close the gap to 12-7.
“We had the opportunity to shut somebody out again, and we didn’t finish it," Gonzales said. "It bothers them. It bothers the tar out of me.”
With the possibility of a massive upset staring them in the face, ASU's offense finally delivered a knockout blow. Daniels found Benjamin on a crossing route, and the junior running back raced 72 yards for the touchdown.
An interception by ASU safety Cam Phillips on the ensuing drive ended the Hornet threat for good.
"I get it."
On the fans booing the ASU offense on Friday night.
The Critical Moment
After Sacramento State's touchdown closed the gap to 12-7 with just over six minutes left, ASU found themselves in an uncomfortable position they never thought they'd be in.
So they needed their best player to make a play. He did.
To that point, Eno Benjamin had been held in check, with just 66 yards on the ground. But when he caught Daniels' pass over the middle, he made the most of it.
He turned upfield and ran to the left sideline. With true freshman wide receiver Jordan Kerley flanking him and throwing a key block, Benjamin hit paydirt to seal the win.
There's no way around it.
“We shot ourselves in the foot," said ASU offensive coordinator Rob Likens.
Facing a lower-level team, ASU scored just three points and gained 78 yards in the first half, only 16 of which came on the ground.
“We have to get better at running the football, regardless of who we play," Edwards said. "That sets up who we are. That sets up our personality. We’re not a drop-back football team. We’re not built to do that.”
The offensive line is the most pressing issue. The line features two freshmen in West at center and right guard Jarrett Bell—who left the game in the second half due to injury. Cohl Cabral, one of the nation's best centers from a season ago, playing out of position at left tackle.
Time and time again, the group was beaten by smaller and less talented players in the trenches. On the night, ASU gained just 91 yards rushing on 39 carries, and gave up nine tackles for loss.
“We have to control the line of scrimmage," Edwards said. "You can’t play offense on your heels.”
The line wasn't the only issue, however. The Sun Devils had a number of costly dropped passes and penalties that derailed otherwise promising drives.
“We had a lot of miscues, individuals at certain times that would kill drives," Likens said. "Your margin for error, especially with what we’re dealing with, we can’t do that. We have to execute at an extremely high level.”
In his second career start, Daniels did well, despite facing consistent pressure for the Hornets. He completed 17 of 27 passes for 304 yards, and for the second straight week, he did not commit a turnover. While he did miss some makeable throws and make some freshman mistakes, his potential remains obvious.
“There are plays that I missed that could have opened up the run game more," Daniels said. "There were a couple of reads I could have pulled it to help Eno out.”
Aiyuk led the way with 98 yards on four receptions, followed by Benjamin's 96 on four grabs. Kyle Williams made four catches for 29 yards. Five other players had one catch each, highlighted by Darby, who was credited with 45 yards on the touchdown that was called back.
Through two weeks of the season, ASU has put together two disappointing offensive showings against team with significantly less talent. While he realizes the need to improve, and to do so quickly, Likens isn't ready to sound the alarm.
“I’m not panicking.”
Heading into the season, the ASU defense was expected to be the team's strength. Through two weeks, that's exactly how it's played out with the group surrendering a total of 14 points.
For nearly all of Friday's game, the group held the Hornets in check, and they were able to get off the field when needed. Sacramento State was just four of 14 on third down, and failed on all three of their fourth down attempts.
“I think we’re good enough on defense that we’ll have a chance to win every game," Gonzales said.
Davidson was a force on the line, making 2.5 tackles for loss, while linebacker Darien Butler had a sack and forced fumble. Cornerback Chase Lucas led the team with seven tackles, all solo, while Jack Jones had two pass breakups.
The group has the makings of becoming an elite unit, but their coordinator wasn't pleased with the lone scoring drive.
“We played really good defense for about 55 minutes,” Gonzales said. “We have to learn how to play 60.”
Sacramento State's seven-play, 72-yard scoring drive prevented ASU from posting their first shutout since the Sun Devils beat these Hornets 55-0 in 2013.
“That’s two weeks in a row that we’ve had a fourth quarter drive that changed the momentum of the success that we were having," Gonzales said. “Our kids have to understand that there’s no room for error. Don’t give up big plays.”
Given ASU's offensive inconsistency, even more pressure will be put on the defense to keep the Sun Devils in games. They've shown they can rise to the occasion, but it's not a sustainable strategy.
With starting kicker Brandon Ruiz out for a second consecutive week, redshirt sophomore Cristian Zendejas was called upon again to handle the team's kicking duties.
Like last week, he was perfect.
As the offense continued to be unable to finish drives in the redzone, Zendejas connected on all four of his field goal attempts—from 36, 26, 35, and 26 yards. He has now made all seven of his field goal attempts this season.
As Ruiz's status remains up in the air, and with ASU likely to be in a number of close games throughout the year, having another reliable kicking option will be a big boost for the Sun Devils.
After last week's 30-7 win over Kent State, the ASU offensive line was scrutinized for their play, with many expecting an improvement on Friday night.
Instead, they regressed. All night long, Hornet defenders were in ASU's backfield.
“We couldn’t find any running lanes at all," Edwards said. "Eno was getting hit in the backfield a bunch.”
To complicate matters, right guard Jarrett Bell and right tackle Steven Miller each left the game at points due to injury.
With the schedule now ramping up, there will be no room for error for the Sun Devils. The must be better in the trenches, or the rest of the season could get ugly.
“We have to have sustained blocks," said Edwards.
The Hot Take
It's no secret. Herm Edwards loves to run the ball and control the clock.
Behind a veteran offensive line, Eno Benjamin broke the school rushing record last year. With a true freshman quarterback, ASU figured to lean even more on the running game in 2019.
"What folks are doing to us is they’re putting six guys in the box and they’re hitting gaps," Edwards said. "They’re putting a lot of pressure on us.”
As the offensive line remains suspect, holes to run through scarce, and opponents knowing the Sun Devils reliance on the run, maybe it's time to tweak the formula.
“Are we going to be able to run the football like we’ve been able to in the past?" said Likens. "That’s what I want to do, but we may not be able to do that.”
Through two games, ASU's line has had better success in pass protection than in run blocking. Daniels has shown flashes of being the rare talent many consider him to be, with poise beyond his years. The wide receiver group has an emerging star in Aiyuk and quality options in Darby in Williams, plus the receiving talents of Benjamin.
It may be time to air it out more often, and in more creative ways. More quick passes to the perimeter could help ease the pressure on the line, and in turn, provide more chances later in the game for the run or shots downfield. With Daniels' mobility, rolling him out to move the pocket could ease the pressure he's faced.
After the game, Likens sounded like all options would be considered.
“We got to find out what this team can do good," Likens said. "Our offense isn’t last year’s offense. We have to adjust as coaches and players.”
The Big Picture
It's weird to say for a 2-0 team, but it's not time to panic.
ASU has a rising star at quarterback, an All-American-caliber running back, and dangerous perimeter weapons. The defense is in the works to becoming elite.
Several key pieces are there, and the scheduled remains favorable. But one huge question remains.
Can the offensive line be good enough?
If so, the Sun Devils have enough talent to make a run at the Pac-12 South. If not, then making a bowl game may become difficult.
The Next Step
Now the season truly gets underway.
Next week, the Sun Devils will travel to East Lansing to take on Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartans entered Week 2 ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll, and they'll be looking for revenge for last season's upset win by ASU in Tempe.
Michigan State boasts one of the nation's best defenses, although their offense continues to struggle. The game will also provide the first road test of the year for Daniels and his teammates.
The Extra Points
- ASU tight end Nolan Matthews and wide receiver Jordan Kerley each made their first career receptions.
- Daniels logged his first career 300-yard game (304). That total is the third-highest passing yardage total by a freshman quarterback in school history (Rudy Carpenter, 467 in 2005 Insight Bowl, Jeff Krohn 432 vs. Oregon in 2000)