It was deja vu in the worst way for Arizona State fans.
The Sun Devil defense was just two plays into its season when it happened again.
Northern Arizona sat on its own 27-yard line, forced into a 3rd-and-long situation. Sophomore quarterback Chase Cookus scanned the field and hit junior wide receiver Elijah Marks 25 yards down the field.
Two plays later, same situation. ASU had NAU backed into another 3rd-and-long. Cookus took the snap and found junior wideout Emmanuel Butler for a 21 yard gain.
And although ASU stuffed NAU’s drive a few plays later, the trend that was the subject of groans from Sun Devil fans remained alive: susceptibility to big plays.
ASU would concede five more 20-plus-yard completions throughout the night, including an 87-yard strike for NAU’s lone touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Before you say, “Here we go again,” consider that the defense displayed against NAU isn’t a precursor for the rest of the season.
Schematically, ASU kept it simple. Head coach Todd Graham said that was the “least amount of pressure” his defense has ran in a game.
Part of that was a preseason declaration of blitzing less, but it was also due to several key communicators missing the opener.
In the secondary, redshirt senior Laiu Moeakiola did not play. Moeakiola battled a hamstring issue in the weeks coming into the season, and so juniors Chad Adams and J’Marcus Rhodes got their shot at bandit safety.
Although the duo combined for seven solo tackles, it’s hard to replace the experience and awareness of Moeakiola. If he returns for Texas Tech (Graham didn’t give any indications if he will), he’ll help in minimizing missed assignments.
Additionally, ASU rushed just four while NAU slid seven or eight men into protection. What ensued was plenty of time for Cookus to scan the field and comfortably find his receivers across the field. Marks and Butler are big-framed receivers (6-foot-1 and 6-foot-4 respectively), and they beat ASU’s corners physically throughout the night.
“I thought we did a good job,” redshirt sophomore safety Armand Perry said. “They got a couple 50-50 balls, but I thought we played pretty solid. We just got to go back to the film and get ready for Texas Tech.”
Perry was a bright spot in the secondary after making his return at field safety from a season lost to injury. He flew across the field consistently, totaling six tackles (one for loss) and made big stops near the line of scrimmage.
“It was just the first game,” Perry said. “Just playing out there with some new guys. Just getting some new guys that got to get the rhythm for the feel for the game, but we’re just going to go back to the drawing board and watch what we did tonight and just correct it.”
After the game, Graham complimented sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr, who dealt with Butler for a good portion of the game. Although Butler caught seven passes for 118 yards, his two longest catches of 39 and 25 yards came while he matched up against redshirt senior De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes and off a bizarre tip play at the end of the first half.
Hayes and senior Bryson Echols struggled at field corner, and it was Echols and Adams who got torched on the 87-yard touchdown. Even so, Graham was positive after the game.
“Really proud of our defense,” Graham said. “I thought our defense played really exceptionally well other than being up three touchdowns, being in cover three and letting them throw the ball over the top of us.”
Overall, ASU’s secondary had an oxymoranic performance. It gave up over 350 passing yards but just one touchdown. Graham backed off on pressuring the quarterback, but NAU still took chunks off the field through the air.
And yet, considering the fact that Moeakiola was out, it’s hard to tell what the secondary will look like with him at bandit safety.
It seemed that the theme after the game was: to be determined. And ASU’s performance on the back end was no exception.
“Teams watch film, so if they see us give up something, you could expect that next week,” Perry said. “Texas Tech is an Air Raid-type team, and we’re just going to celebrate this win tonight (and) tomorrow just get back to work and start breaking down Texas Tech, and that’s all we’re focused on.”