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ASU vs NAU: Analytical Breakdown & Takeaways

What did the Sun Devils do well—and what did they struggle with—against NAU in their season opener?

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Northern Arizona v Arizona State Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The Sun Devils came away with a comfortable 44-13 victory over the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks during their season opener Saturday night. Below, we take a look at what ASU did well, what they displayed, and what they can improve on as they continue their 2016 campaign.

ASU Offense

Showing Their Hand

On ASU’s first drive of the evening, the Sun Devils needed only seven plays to go 44 yards before scoring. All seven plays were runs, and all were executed via an inside-zone read or split look. The offense essentially walked down the field.

However, during the following possession, the offense lined up in a trips bunch formation. The first play was an run-pass option (RPO) screen to Tim White (nine catches, 95 yards), followed by an RPO give to Richard. A play later, Manny Wilkins (20-for-27, 180 yards) threw an interception.

The series after that, ASU primarily lined up in a four-receiver spread look. It wasn’t until the team’s fourth series when the Sun Devils lined up in the pistol and ran plays out of that set.

The point of the series recap is to make the point that offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey didn’t go into the game looking to show his full hand ahead of the Sun Devils’ matchup with Texas Tech next weekend.

ASU deviated throughout the early stages of the game to test out their plays against an actual opponent. There’s certainly issues that need to be addressed in order to get the unit humming, but there’s positives to be taken away for the potential of the offense.

Ballage, Richard, & Wilkins

Ballage and Richard—or “Thunder & Lightning” as they were described as by The Republic earlier this week—were on the field together for about six percent of all snaps.

The opening series, they were on the field for the first two plays, and the action in the backfield kept the defense on its toes, allowing Richard (19 rushes, 78 yards, TD) to gash them, then Wilkins (14 rushes, 89 yards, TD) to reel off a huge run.

Later in the game, ASU ran plays out of formations featuring Ballage (10 rushes, 56 yards, TD) in the backfield and Richard in the slot, and vice versa, with Ballage receiving a jet sweep while motioning out of the slot. Having the two junior tailbacks on the field at the same time is going to pose problems for teams down the road, and while it wasn’t featured as often as fans would probably prefer, the small dosage featured was encouraging.

As for Wilkins, he seems to be right at home executing the called RPO plays. Once the ball is in his hands, he proved he’s a fantastic playmaker, breaking for multiple big plays, including this designed quarterback draw that went for a big play.

The running game is working. Although, the young offensive line still has room for improvement.

Passing Game

Wilkins still has some strides to make as a passer. He’s not as comfortable in the pocket or working the intermediate and deep passing game as he could be yet.

Wilkins threw his first career interception while staring down a receiver for too long before targeting an intermediate route where the receiver broke inside just behind the awaiting defender. It was on his second pass of the game; his first was a quick swing pass to White.

That said, there’s a reason why in the latter stages of the game White and true freshman N’Keal Harry (four catches, 31 yards; 1 rush, 34 yards, TD) were able to get going: the play calls designed for Wilkins to get the ball out of his hands and into the hands of the playmakers out on the perimeter.

Not that ASU necessarily held back going deep, but so long as the receivers continue to prove they can create opportunities in space, it’s in the team’s best interest to work the horizontal passing game.

Also… let’s talk about N’Keal Harry for a second.

As a receiver, as a blocker, as rusher, as anything—the true freshman is going to be a difference maker. The Sun Devils got a good one.


Pass Rush

The Sun Devils didn’t log their first sack of the game until late in the fourth quarter, and only finished with the one on the evening.

Linebacker D.J. Calhoun (team-high seven tackles, one for loss) was able to generate pressure up the middle and defensive end JoJo Wicker collapsed the pocket in spurts, however there wasn’t a surplus of sacks tonight because, again, Graham wasn’t showing all of his cards ahead of the Texas Tech game.

The defensive scheme took a much more conservative approach tonight, often relying on the four men at the line of scrimmage to generate any pressure.

It led to some clean pockets and chances for Cookus to attack vertically, and ASU paid for it.

Pass Coverage

There’s still room for improvement here, both amongst the linebackers and the defensive backs.

NAU receiver Emmanuel Butler (seven catches, 118 yards) utilized his size to outmuscle and out jump defenders on the boundary, and Elijah Marks (eight catches, 174 yards) managed to break loose for a couple of big plays, too. Despite a less aggressive approach, the defense has struggled defending the pass, allowing NAU quarterback Case Cookus to 369 yards and one touchdown, completing 23-of-33 passes. It’s clear discipline and communication amongst the back seven needs to improve if the Sun Devils want to stand any chance against the gifted Pat Mahomes next weekend.

Run Defense

NAU’s strength is obviously their passing game, but the ASU front seven did more than hold its own, limiting the Lumberjacks to 1.6 yards per carry.

Defensive linemen Tashon Smallwood (four tackles, one for loss) and Renell Wren (four tackles, two for loss) particularly stood out, with Calhoun also making his presence felt.

Safety Armand Perry (six tackles, one for loss) flew all over the field tonight, doing a great job filling into his proper spots in the box when asked to do so.

He was pretty excited about being back on the field.

Overall Takeaway

Schematically, take this game with a grain of salt.

The offense’s run game, as expected, will be relied upon to literally carry the load. It looks poised to do so with Wilkins at quarterback, and it appears the receiving core will be as dynamic as advertised with White and Harry leading the way.

Defensively, there’s technical issues that need to be addressed, but ones that can be resolved by the incorporation of Graham’s signature blitz-heavy style.