The first weekend of college football is almost always a catalyst for overreactions and knee-jerk takes, and for a team entering the 2016-17 season with low expectations and an abundance of questions, Arizona State did little to quiet doubters after struggling to put away Northern Arizona in the season opener.
Sloppy plays, uncharacteristic penalties and a few injuries did nothing more than delay anyone’s ability to determine what exactly this team could be.
The one answer ASU provided was who the starting quarterback would be, and Manny Wilkins was neither impressive or disappointing and did not silence nor enhance any cries to see backup Brady White take a few snaps.
The caveats are easy to point out: first collegiate start, four new starters on the offensive line and smoothing out a new offense under Chip Lindsey.
But at face value, it’s difficult to grade Wilkins’ performance. Two minutes into the season, everything looked as one could have predicted: seven plays, 44 yards and a quick touchdown.
ASU’s offense was rolling. The Sun Devils turned NAU over on downs, and Wilkins hit redshirt senior wide receiver Tim White for a 15 yard gain. Not bad for his first completed pass in college.
The second one: not so much. Wilkins connected with a pair of hands again, but on the wrong team. Over the next 28 minutes and 57 seconds, ASU tallied just two field goals. The offense’s rhythm was choppy at best.
“I feel like I can’t make those mistakes when momentum is going,” Wilkins said. “I will obviously get better there, I’m just really proud of the guys, really working and putting a dominating win in.”
Wilkins fanned the flames of optimism here and there, fooling NAU defenders on keepers and getting rid of the ball quickly so White and freshman N’Keal Harry could get to work.
“I thought he did a good job managing the game,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “He made one bad decision throwing the interception, but I like how he responded to that. I like his demeanor on the sideline throughout the whole time. He was very positive. I’d like for him to be a little more careful than doing all that hurdling stuff.”
His ability to run the read-option was clear as he racked up 89 yards on 14 carries (6.4 yards per carry) and a touchdown.
In game highlight:@Manny_Wilkins5 hurdles over an NAU defender. And here we were thinking Tim White was a track star https://t.co/2fy4PdlbKF— Miles Todd (@5280ft_s) September 4, 2016
That said, 20-of-27 for 180 yards and an interception isn’t exactly eye-popping in either direction.
Like anyone could expect in a young quarterback’s first start, Wilkins was at times too eager to tuck-and-run (to his credit, he did so successfully) and at other times a beat too slow to go through progressions.
On a handful of occasions, Wilkins got stuck on the first or second options, missing open receivers in the flats before he decided to take off.
Wilkins using his legs is in no way a poor choice. He trusts himself to get there and showed he could.
The drive that included the aforementioned hurdle was one of Wilkins’ smoothest drives. Pinned inside ASU’s own 10-yard line, Wilkins completed three straight passes, executed a QB draw and nearly hit redshirt senior tight end Kody Kohl across the right sideline that would’ve had ASU inside NAU’s 10-yard line.
However, the drive was halted a few plays later, and the Sun Devils had to settle for a field goal.
“He did some things that a first-time starter would do, but then he did a great job moving the ball and moving down the stretch,” Graham said. “Our guys did a great job taking over in the fourth quarter and dominating.”
With a new offense and an inexperienced offensive line, Graham mentioned after the game that they kept the offense simple because they could. He was confident in the running game, and that’s what ASU stuck with throughout the night (63 percent of their plays were runs).
When ASU finally got into a dominant rhythm, the mood of the game seemed to reach a point of apathy. ASU posted a 31-point blowout on an FCS opponent, and the game never really felt in doubt, so it was just a matter of how the Sun Devils won. And by “how”, people wanted to know what to expect with Wilkins manning the offense.
And with Wilkins manning the offense, ASU tallied 456 total yards and five touchdowns. The tempo was high, and explosive plays happened. It wasn’t the cleanest of debuts for Wilkins, but it was a debut that ended with the Sun Devils on top.
“We started off with a bang, driving the down the field and scoring but then we became very sluggish after that,” Graham said. “I am very proud of Manny.”
Ultimately: Nobody knows anything just yet, other than one can safely assume Manny Wilkins is the starting quarterback next weekend against Texas Tech.
“When adversity strikes, you just got to keep bouncing back,” Wilkins said. “We’ll look at the film and then go from there.”