Just as every major program has to deal with talent turnover and the ushering in of new assistant coaches as old ones leave for higher positions at other universities, the Arizona State Sun Devils were no stranger to questions on the offensive side of the ball coming into the 2016 season.
How would Manny Wilkins perform in his first season as the starting quarterback? What would Chip Lindsey’s innovative offense look like against Pac-12 opposition, and could N’Keal Harry have an immediate impact in the passing game?
Those questions have all been answered to various degrees of certainty (Wilkins can play - when healthy, ASU is No. 1 in innovation on and off the field and N’Keal’s the real deal), but none of them have been a greater influence in the offense’s success this season than the entities that have been tearing up through the Pac-12’s since 2014.
For providing consistency when the quarterback situation took a number of left turns to keeping Arizona State in position to win games, Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are our Co-Offensive MVP’s.
Each of the Sun Devils five wins on the year have a signature moment from one of the running backs. Ballage scampered through Northern Arizona for a 30-yard touchdown in the season opener, while Richard added a short-yardage score.
The next week was all Ballage, as the junior tied an NCAA record with an astonishing eight touchdowns against Texas Tech on a night in which the Sun Devils needed all eight of his scores in a 68-55 barnburner. The Texas Tech game saw the introduction of the “Sparky” formation, Arizona State’s (cooler-sounding) version of the traditional Wildcat formation. Seven of Ballage’s touchdowns on the night came from those direct-snap opportunities, and the Sparky package became a mainstay of the offense moving forward.
Richard led the Sun Devils with 95 yards rushing in the Alamodome against UTSA, setting the stage for Ballage’s fourth-quarter score that put the team ahead for good. Against UCLA, Richard’s performance keyed Arizona State’s efforts to outlast the Bruins, scoring a five-yard touchdown that jumpstarted the Sun Devil offense’s second-half surge.
Despite the struggles that conference season has brought the Maroon and Gold, Ballage and Richard have remained constant in their production. Each scored a touchdown against Washington State to pull ASU back within a score of the Cougars at the five-minute mark of the fourth, and would’ve been in position to win the game had the Sun Devil defense been able to get off the field on the following drive.
Ballage added a pair of touchdowns in Eugene last week, and as Dillon Sterling-Cole seems poised to take over the starting job moving forward, the reliability of Ballage and Baby Beast Mode in the backfield is paramount towards keeping the offense as potent as ever.