After watching eight of their fellow FBS teams fall to FCS opponents last weekend, the Arizona State Sun Devils vowed that would not happen against the Sacramento State Hornets on Thursday.
When the Sun Devils finally took the field, they wasted little time in making their point heard.
The Hornets started the game with the football and picked up four first downs on the opening drive, but those would be the only occasions on which they moved the chains in the first half. Arizona State's effort proved so dominating that the Sun Devils held a comfortable 42-0 lead by halftime and could use the rest of the game to showcase the depth of its roster.
Todd Graham mentioned this offseason that last year he had players who believed they could win. This year, Graham says his players expect to win. On Thursday, the Sun Devils looked like they expected to seek and destroy anything that crossed their path on the road to victory.
But just how improved did Arizona State appear against the Hornets? Let's dive in with deeper analysis on the 55-0 demolition.
Arizona State On Offense
Stats to Know
- Taylor Kelly completed 23 of 31 passes for 300 yards and five touchdowns.
- Five different receivers caught Kelly's touchdown passes (D. Nelson, Strong, Grice, Coyle, Ozier)
- Jaelen Strong caught six passes for 58 yards.
- Arizona State accumulated 523 yards of total offense and outgained Sacramento State by 356 yards.
- The Sun Devils have now scored first in 12 of their 14 games under Todd Graham.
- The Sun Devils scored on their first five drives of the game.
In the Air
progression as the Sun Devils' starting quarterback is a testament to the time he and his coaches have invested in the offense. Kelly is the model of efficiency and his ability to make plays with his feel separates him from the pack. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has tailored this offense to Kelly's skill set and this offseason, the coaching staff rewarded Kelly's progress by recruiting reliable receiving targets.
"Taylor is a heck of a quarterback and a heck of a leader," Graham said. "You can see how comfortable he feels in the pocket and operating our system."
The chemistry Kelly has developed with his new receivers was evident from the first series, as he found De'Marieya Nelson
for a touchdown. But Kelly didn't just limit himself to throwing Nelson's way. He explored every option in the playbook and hit five different receivers for first half touchdowns passes.
"Chris (Coyle) and Rick (Richard) Smith, and Jaelen (Strong) and DJ (Foster), they're great playmakers and I trust what they see," Kelly said.
Without Kelly at the helm, the offense would look dramatically different, and likely dramatically less effective. Though he was rarely pressured, Kelly excelled in finding the open man and by looking off defensive backs on the sideline to leave open receivers in the middle of the field.
"I felt a lot more comfortable with the offense and the players," Kelly said. "The offensive line did a great job tonight, giving me the ability to get some time back there and get it to my playmakers."
On the Ground
The most surprising aspect of the offensive fireworks was the rather pedestrian performance from the Sun Devil running backs. The Sun Devils maintained their commitment to the running game by rushing 44 times for 176 yards, but it lacked the usual flair we grew accustomed to seeing last season.
carried 14 times for 59 yards, but D.J. Foster
rushed just one time. The numbers are surely an aberration because its just the first game of the season and they come against an FCS team, but the running game was expected to be the most dynamic element in this offense.
The biggest bright spot on the ground was the play of Deantre Lewis
who announced he'll be back with a vengeance this season in a solid performance. Lewis racked up 53 rushing yards and 52 receiving yards and looks like he has completely recovered since being hit with a stray bullet following his freshman season.
All in all, the run game is the one area that the Sun Devils look like they need the most improvement and Taylor Kelly didn't shy away from acknowledging that after the game.
"We just got to be able to improve on the running game, I think, and just get that going for next week," Kelly said.
A single stat tells the story: Arizona State committed one penalty. The Sun Devils tried to get fancy and use Michael Eubank
in a goal line situation after Grandville Taylor's sensational interception return and the offense simply wasn't ready.
Arizona State prepared a special package for the situation, but with a 45-0 lead, players' minds can drift and sudden changes in field position and possession can account for penalties like the delay of game that ultimately falls on Eubank's shoulders.
Putting the penalty aside, the coaching staff did a phenomenal job in making sure the offense was mentally prepared for game action. The Sun Devils put points on the board on their first five drives and looked like they were in midseason form on more than a few occasions. It's easier said than done to dominate a team like Sacramento State, but Arizona State came out of the gates on fire.
The Sun Devils played fast in the no-huddle, hurry-up offense, but Graham said after the game that he still wasn't satisfied with the pace of play.
"I thought from what we've played in practice, I thought we were playing slow," Graham said. "I don't know what it was... I thought we were kind of sluggish."
It's difficult to analyze pace of play without advanced metrics at my disposal, but the Sun Devils did a fine job of lining up and getting snaps off quickly after plays of more than 10 yards. However, Kelly often threw quick bubble screens after big plays, so Arizona State will look to get more creative against opponents like Wisconsin.
It's never a good idea to show your whole playbook off after a game has been decided. Norvell did a nice job of finding a balance between maintaining productivity while keeping his best plays under wraps.
The Bottom Line
The Sun Devils looked like a well-oiled machine just yearning to get released onto the open road when they hit the field on Thursday. That hunger manifested itself in a seven-touchdown, 55-point performance that showed off the versatility of this offense. Some weeks, Arizona State will rely on its running game to win. Other times, the Sun Devils will use a combination of the run and pass to fluster an opponent. Tonight, it was another "Victory by TKO*" (Taylor Kelly offense) as the Sun Devil quarterback shined on opening night.
* "Victory by TKO" is adapted from the Arizona State football game notes, as written by Jeremy Hawkes
Nick Krueger contributed to this article