The Manny Wilkins era got off to a slow start but the Arizona State Sun Devils were able to avoid disaster and beat the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks 44-13 to open the 2016 season. The Sun Devils led 10-3 at halftime and NAU pulled to within four points early in the third quarter.
The season could not have started any better for Arizona State, as they took the opening kickoff and marched 44 yards in seven plays -- all rushes -- and took a 7-0 lead with 12:58 left in the first quarter on a Manny Wilkins 13-yard touchdown run.
The ASU offense was quiet the rest of the half Wilkins threw and interception on ASU's next drive and ASU punted on its following three possessions. The Sun Devil offensive line struggled to open holes for running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage in the first half as the duo combined for just 33 yards in the game's first 30 minutes.
The Lumberjacks also struggled to finish drives in the first half, they turned the ball over on downs after a 10-play drive midway through the first quarter and punted on their next two drives. NAU got on the board early in the second quarter on a 25-yard field goal by Griffin Roehler.
The Sun Devils added a field goal by Zane Gonzalez late in the half to take a 10-3 lead into halftime. Despite leading, ASU was actually outgained by the Lumberjacks 212-169 and NAU held the ball for over 17 minutes in the first half.
The Lumberjacks started the second half with a nine-play drive that saw them reach the ASU one-yard line before being called for a fall start to push them back to the six and forcing them to settle for a field goal. Roehler hit from 23 yards and NAU pulled within four.
From there on, it as all Arizona State as the Sun Devils scored the next 16 points to take a 26-6 lead early in the fourth quarter. Following the NAU score, ASU marched 30 yards in eight plays with Gonzalez booting a career-long 53-yard field goal to put ASU up 13-6 with 7:29 left in the third quarter.
Following an NAU three-and-out, the Sun Devils went on their most impressive drive of the game. ASU went on a 15-play, 89-yard scoring drive that was capped by a two-yard touchdown run by Richard, his first of the season. The junior finished the night with 19 carries for 78 yards.
ASU put the game out of reach on their next drive when freshman N'Keal Harry took a pitch 34 yards for his first touchdown as a Sun Devil. The score gave ASU a 26-6 lead (Gonzalez missed the extra point) with 10:51 left in the game.
Wilkins finished the game 20-27 for 180 yards and an interception. He also led ASU in rushing with 89 yards on 14 carries. Kalen Ballage finished the game with 56 yards on 10 carries with one touchdown. Tim White led ASU with nine receptions for 95 yards.
The Sun Devil defense did a nice job against an NAU offense that scored at least 40 points in each home game in 2015 and returned the FCS Freshman of the Year in quarterback Chase Cookus.
Cookus and wide receiver Elijah Marks hooked up on an 87-yard touchdown strike midway through the fourth quarter but overall the Sun Devils did a nice job keeping the NAU receivers in front of them.
ASU finished the game down two linebackers on top of missing Salamo Fiso for undisclosed reasons. Christian Sam was injured in the first quarter and did not return. Sam was seen walking on the sideline in a walking boot. SPUR linebacker Marcus Ball was ejected in the third quarter after being flagged for targeting, he will miss the first half of ASU's next game against Texas Tech.
Laiu Moeakiola and Ami Latu also did not play for the Sun Devils.
While it wasn't pretty, when the dust settled the Sun Devils beat their neighbors to the north by 30 points and ushered in 2016 with a victory.
Check back later for a full game recap as well as more analysis.