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ASU Football: Offense comes alive as Sun Devils hold off New Mexico

Early-season struggles seemed to continue in Arizona State's third game of the season, but the Sun Devils improved toward victory.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Todd Graham is usually expressive in postgame conferences following wins, but the Arizona State Sun Devils coach appeared to be slightly exhausted when he took the podium Friday night.

"I'm really tired of the triple option," Graham said. "Really tired."

After narrowly defeating Cal Poly last week, the Sun Devils (2-1) contained the perimeter better and developed a rhythm on offense as they defeated the New Mexico Lobos 34-10.

Despite players saying all week they shook off their rust, ASU's early-season woes continued right at kickoff. The Sun Devils went three-and-out on their first two drives and failed to score in the first quarter. On its third possession, ASU had to settle for a Zane Gonzalez field goal despite taking a 17-play, 74-yard drive all the way to New Mexico's 1-yard line.

Then, things started to finally click for a discombobulated offense.

Toward the end of the first half, quarterback Mike Bercovici connected with wide receiver Tim White for a 14-yard touchdown that put the Sun Devils up 10-0. On the Sun Devils' first possession of the second half, Bercovici found running back Demario Richard for a 33-yard score.

Things that were trademarked in ASU's offense were slowly starting to work again — quick passes, zone reads, even a reincarnation of the Back-Shoulder Fade. After starting 0-for-4, Bercovici finished the game 22-for-37 and even strung together nine consecutive completions in the middle of the game.

ASU was just working on a quicker — yet more efficient — tempo.

"As an offense, you have to convert on third down," Bercovici said. "We missed that early and that's because we've rushed on a couple decisions, but when we started going, we started finding our identity. We played fast. I thought our offensive line did a great job getting to the ball faster. Amazing shape — that I think is what really showed up."

For the first two games, the Sun Devils were heavily criticized for using a lot of read-option plays with Mike Bercovici, who isn't known for his ability to run with the ball.

Bercovici shocked the critics by keeping the ball on a zone-read and running in for a 8-yard touchdown.

"I love [running the ball]...and that's what it takes to read this offense," Bercovici said.

Graham wasn't too surprised Bercovici turned on the jets — that's what he emphasized with him this week in practice. As Bercovici's predecessor, Taylor Kelly, made ASU's quick offense successful with his mobility, Graham reiterated the offense's identity following the game.

"We're a run, play-action pass football team, and it's so important [that Bercovici runs]," Graham said. "That really opens up our offense."

Despite the Sun Devils regaining their mojo, it still didn't come easy. Tyrone Owens gave New Mexico a 65-yard touchdown run before Bercovici scored, and the Lobos came within two possessions after Jason Sanders nailed a 32-yard field goal for New Mexico.

It didn't get close after that. The Sun Devils responded with a quick pass from Bercovici to Richard that he took for a 93-yard touchdown — which tied for third-longest receiving play in school history. ASU finally figured out the Lobos' triple option by closing out on the perimeter and forced New Mexico to go three-and-out in three consecutive possessions. Jordan Simone intercepted Austin Apodoca's deep-slant pass in the endzone to seal the victory for the Sun Devils.

Richard ended the game with 256 total yards. His 151 receiving yards were the most by a running back in ASU history.

New Mexico's third-down offense confused ASU's defense, breaking out in big plays on 3rd-and-longs. After the Lobos were 7-for-12 in third-down conversions going into halftime, the Sun Devils limited New Mexico to just 2-for-9 in the second half.

Simone finished with 10 tackles (seven solo) and a sack. The Sun Devils' linebacker corps also delivered, as Salamo Fiso had 10 tackles to his own and Laiu Moeakiola collecting eight tackles. ASU held the New Mexico triple option to 295 total yards and a relatively low 184 yards on the ground, while the Sun Devil offense racked up 449 yards.

"Laiu has been the MVP the past two weeks," Graham said. "He's been absolutely incredible."

As the Sun Devils open Pac-12 play against the No. 6 USC Trojans next week, Graham was confident about his team's status. Even with new tackles on the offensive line, new receiving corps and a plethora of injuries, Graham has been pleased how Arizona State has played, although the execution has been "sluggish."

"I feel good about where we're at," Graham said. "I guarantee our guys will come play next week."

Injury update:

The Sun Devils' injury plague continued as they lost wide receiver Devin Lucien and defensive lineman Edmond Boateng for the game. Arizona State was already without Kalen Ballage, De'Chavon Hayes, Viliami Latu, William McGehee and Armand Perry.

Graham revealed wide receiver D.J. Foster was limited throughout the game, citing Foster was "banged up."

True freshman Kareem Orr started at field safety in place of Perry. Orr finished with four total tackles, three solo and split a tackle for loss.