Thursday night's performance by ASU (1-0) was far from pretty. The Sun Devils jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and later a 37-13 advantage, but never truly slammed the door on the Aggies.
“I’ll take an ugly win every week,” ASU football head coach Todd Graham said after Thursday’s game.
By that logic, Graham must be happy with the Sun Devils’ 37-31 win over the New Mexico State Aggies (0-1).
NMSU did not have much travel moving the ball against the Sun Devils’ defense.
Redshirt senior quarterback Tyler Rogers carved up ASU, tossing for 398 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. The Aggies also got a big game from redshirt senior wide receiver Jaleel Scott, who recorded 149 yards with two touchdowns, one that he reeled in one-handed.
Overall, NMSU out-gained the Sun Devils 549 yards to 400, which was not how Graham envisioned his defense in game number one, even if it did result in a victory.
One explanation for the defense’s poor play is that ASU did not substitute any defenders until the fourth quarter. Considering the high in Tempe was in triple digits on Thursday, it is natural for these players to be a bit tired.
“We expect that,” senior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said. “He didn’t tell us, ‘You guys are not coming out.’ That’s just something we expect.”
So it would not be insane to expect the defensive starters to play most, if not all, of the game next Saturday when ASU hosts San Diego State.
But it was a win all the same, and while the offense went through some inconsistency, it did enough to hold off NMSU.
Redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins was impressive. He threw for 22 of his 27 passes, and added two touchdowns with an even 300 passing yards.
His first touchdown was a strike to redshirt junior wide receiver Jalen Harvey, who was streaking wide open across the middle of the field, and outran an Aggie defender to complete the 53-yard score.
Wilkins tossed another in the third when he completed a deep route to redshirt sophomore wide receiver John Humphrey for a 60-yard touchdown.
“I just told Manny to put it up there — and he did,” Humphrey said.
“I just told him to run, man. He’s fast as hell,” Wilkins said. “And if that dude gets behind the corner, then that’s what we are going to do ... just put that ball up there and let him run out there and make a play. And that’s what happened.”
Wilkins played well, but the offensive line protection was hit or miss. The redshirt junior was harassed all game, as ASU gave up seven sacks. And that doesn’t count the handful of plays when Wilkins evaded pressure to gain a few yards.
That same offensive line wasn’t amazing against the run, either. The Sun Devils only amounted 79 total rushing yards on 40 carries. Moreover, senior running back Kalen Ballage lost four yards on a carry before leaving the game with an injury.
Still, that didn’t stop Ballage from scoring, the first by taking the direct snap from the “Sparky” formation, and the second by blazing untouched into the end zone.
“I think to be an elite football player, you always want the ball in your hands,” Ballage said. “I have that mindset.”
Rounding out the scoring was sophomore cornerback Kobe Williams, who scored on an interception return in the early moments of the fourth quarter.
Thursday’s game was Williams’ first game as a Sun Devil. He mostly played well, intercepting a two-point conversion attempt from NMSU as well. Although he had some struggles, especially against Jaleel Scott, he held his own.
Williams’ counterpart, redshirt junior cornerback Joey Bryant, had his ups and downs, but did get off to a solid start by intercepting Rogers in the first drive.
The Sun Devils will take the field again on Sept. 9 against the San Diego State Aztecs in Tempe at 8:00 p.m.