If there were any question who ASU football's starting quarterback was, Manny Wilkins' performance in the season-opening 37-31 win over New Mexico State silenced all doubters.
Entering Thursday night's game, head coach Todd Graham never officially named Wilkins the starting quarterback — instead, someone had to beat the redshirt junior out.
At least for one week, Wilkins showed complete command of the offense. The Novato, California, native completed 22 of 27 passes for 300 yards, had two touchdowns and a 199.3 QB rating. The highest rating Wilkins posted last season was 173.2 against Texas Tech last September.
"My goal was to manage the game the best I could," Wilkins said. "Take what the defense gave us. When we needed to throw bubbles, when they were pulling people in the box, throw the bubble and when they were outside the bubble, give it to these backs and let them go and make something happen."
Wilkins certainly managed the game, as ASU's offense did not turn the ball over, and the team was plus three in the turnover margin.
In the third quarter, Wilkins started 9-for-9 and was a perfect 10-for-10 for 139 yards. Despite his standout performance, Wilkins said his execution was not flawless.
"I've got to be better," he said. "I feel like I could have thrown a few more completions, just on little things. I did my job of owning the ball and that was the key of the game. That was the goal — to have no turnovers on offense."
Wilkins gave credit to Graham for his ability to manage the game.
Last Monday, offensive coordinator Billy Napier made it clear the run game would facilitate the Sun Devils' offense, but that is not what transpired against the Aggies.
Instead, the Sun Devils had 79 total net rushing yards, despite running 10 more run plays (40) then pass plays (30), and the Aggies finished the night with 151 net rushing yards on 30 carries.
Senior running back Kalen Ballage gained 79 net rushing yards and scored two touchdowns, but fellow senior Demario Richard finished with -4 yards on one carry and left the game with a leg injury in the first half.
"We've got to do a better job running the football," Graham said.
Not only did Wilkins' efficiency stand out, but he also made difficult throws in tight coverage look fairly routine. Plus, when you consider that Wilkins was sacked seven times, his performance might be even more impressive.
However, Wilkins blamed himself for the offensive line's struggles.
"I've just got to a better job with protections," Wilkins said. "My goal is to protect my body and that shot (deep pass completions) don't happen if there is a protection bust. ... I've just got to clean some stuff up on my end to make it a better situation for myself."
Entering the 2017 season there were questions regarding Wilkins' ability to complete a deep ball. Throughout Camp Tontozona and fall practices in Tempe, the 6-foot-3-inches 200-pound gunslinger often overthrew his intended target.
But, Wilkins connected with redshirt sophomore wide receiver John Humphrey on a 60-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter and completed a 53-yard pass to redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Harvey on a busted coverage in the first quarter.
For most of the night, Humphrey and Wilkins seemed to be on point. After transferring from Oklahoma, the speedy Humphrey impressed in fall camp and was ASU's leading receiver, with seven catches for 123 yards.
"We were in the huddle and I just told Manny to put it out there, and that is what we did," Humphrey said.
Regarding that play, Wilkins said he knew New Mexico State was going to run a cover-8 and committed to throwing a deep ball.
Many fans have criticized Wilkins since becoming the starter last season, but the team has to be encouraged by his season opening performance.
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