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ASU Football: Sun Devils pull away late, axe Lumberjacks 44-13

Arizona State rung in the new season with a 31-point victory over the visiting Lumberjacks.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

It was slow, sleepy, and lethargic at times, but the Arizona State Sun Devils got in the win column Saturday with a runaway victory against visiting Northern Arizona.

Arizona State (1-0) was able to turn a slim 10-3 halftime advantage into a 44-13 blowout, using an increased emphasis on a ground attack that tallied four second half touchdowns. The win marked the team's 13th season-opening win in its last 14 seasons.

"When you look at (the score) you can see it was 44-13, and that sounds really good," said head coach Todd Graham after the victory. "It was, like, 10-6 for a long time, but that doesn't count. You guys will forget about that in a couple of weeks."

Graham is right, of course. No one will remember the inaugural 30 minutes of the season, and that's probably for the best.

Save for the Sun Devils' seven play, 44-yard touchdown drive to open the game, the first half was a sluggish display of football that showed just how tough it is to break in a young offensive line and quarterback after an eight-month hiatus.

After rushing for a touchdown on his first series as a starting quarterback, sophomore Manny Wilkins overthrew his second career pass and was promptly intercepted by Lumberjack cornerback Cole Sterns. Things didn't get much better from there, either.

The maroon and gold's next three possessions ended in attempted punts (only two of which actually ended up being kicked, after an errant snap forced punter Matt Haack to try and scramble for a first down), and it wasn't until kicker Zane Gonzalez split the uprights from 33 yards out with 90 seconds remaining in the half that Arizona State got back on the scoreboard. That field goal extended the team's lead to 10-3, which is where the score would stand at the half.

"Obviously, we started off sluggish," Graham said. "It just kind of slowed after that (touchdown) as we tried to get our rhythm down. We will have to work to find that."

It took a while, but the Sun Devils eventually found enough rhythm to get them by on this night.

After trading field goals to start the third quarter, the home team rolled off three touchdowns in three possessions to not only get some breathing room against the Big Sky opponent, but put the game out of reach for good.

A two-yard touchdown jaunt from Demario Richard made the score 20-6 after the third, and a pass that was behind the line of scrimmage to freshman N'Keal Harry ended up going for 34 yards to push the advantage up to 26-6.

Northern Arizona would strike right back with a monster, 87-yard touchdown pass of its own, but an ensuing 30-yard touchdown run for Kalen Ballage proved to be the dagger in the side of the visitors from Flagstaff.

Not to be left out, third-string running back Nick Ralston got in on the fun, scampering 12 yards for a garbage time touchdown to make the final tally 44-13.

"We were just playing out the game," said Richard when asked how the team reacted to the closer-than-expected score at half. "Every team goes through adversity - we’ve seen that this week with teams losing to teams they’re not supposed to. We just keep it between ourselves and tried to speak positively."

Saturday's game marked the debut of Wilkins as a starter for Graham's offense, and reviews were mixed. The sophomore did make a few poor decisions - trying to force a couple of ill-advised throws, taking big sacks when the ball could have been thrown away, etc. - but he finished the night 20-of-27 through the air for 180 yards.

"I have to have better ball security," Wilkins says. "I feel like I can't make those mistakes when we have momentum going. I will obviously get better there."

Attempting to keep some things secret heading into next week's battle with Texas Tech, Wilkins' coaching staff appeared to hold back a good portion of its playbook against the FCS opponent.

"We run what coach (Chip) Lindsey calls," says Wilkins. "The goal was to run down the field and score points. We are just going to do what works."

If that was the goal for Saturday's game: mission accomplished. When the clock hit triple zeroes, Arizona State had scored more than enough points to get the job done against its overmatched opponent.

It wasn't a thing of beauty, but it was a win. And in a week where upsets were abundant throughout the country, that's all that matters.