If you expected Saturday night's game to be a wire-to-wire shellacking, then you were most likely sweating buckets when the Arizona State Sun Devils only led 10-3 going into halftime.
Now it's kind of hard to give out absolute position grades for a game against an FCS opponent for a few reasons, but the most obvious one is that we most likely didn't see ASU's full playbook on either side of the ball.
But alas, we can only judge on what we saw and that's what we'll do.
Manny Wilkins made his first career start as a Sun Devil and already provided us with a glimpse at his athleticism. On the first drive, it was apparent that he was the type of quarterback that Todd Graham wanted for his read-option style of offense when Wilkins kept it for a 13-yard touchdown scamper. Wilkins finished the game with 89 yards on the ground including that rushing touchdown on the opening drive.
Now for why Wilkins receives a B, which for his first career start, isn't a terrible grade to receive.
The pocket presence, accuracy on medium-to-deep throws, and the ability to go through reads seemed to be lacking. That being said, all of those things will improve with the more game-experience Wilkins receives. His lone-interception in the game came by way of staring down his receiver and NAU's Cole Sterns reading Wilkins' eyes on the play.
Again, something that can be fixed with real-game experience when working with a new quarterback.
Running Backs: A
While watching the game, I admittedly was confused as to why the maroon and gold weren't just handing the ball off to Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage every play. Then I remembered, it would be really helpful to have two running backs like these guys with fresh legs when Texas Tech comes to Tempe on September 10.
Ballage and Richard showed us enough to feel confident about and each with the style we have come to expect from them. Richard carried the ball 19 times for 78 yards and a touchdown. He initiated contact and bounced off defenders; that's what he does. Ballage finished with 58 yards on 10 carries, mostly stemming from a 30-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that showed off the big-play ability he's known for.
Receivers/Tight Ends: B+
Because of a technicality, ASU's pass-catchers didn't finish the game with a receiving touchdown because N'Keal Harry's 34-yard touchdown was deemed a backwards pass and changed to a rushing touchdown. But seeing Harry's immediate impact on the field has to give Sun Devils fans plenty to be optimistic about for the future of the ASU receiving corps. Tim White proved he's the go-to guy for Wilkins, finishing with nine catches and 95 yards.
Cameron Smith came back from a season-ending injury last season with three receptions for 21 yards. I would have liked to have seen guys like Jalen Harvey and Ellis Jefferson find a way to get involved, and Kody Kohl was nowhere to be found in the passing game. But with Harry's potential and White's steadiness, I felt decently happy with this group after the game.
Offensive Line: B
Three sacks given up against an FCS school isn't the best start to a season, but I would argue that the key to an offensive line's ability to protect is consistency and finding a rhythm with each other. The group is young and still learning to play with one another, so it's hard to be overly critical in their first game as a unit. Their run-blocking looked strong and with Wilkins' ability to work the run-pass option, I think the line did a decent job at providing lanes.
Defensive Line: C
Arizona State's defensive line was not able to generate much of a pass rush, only finishing with a total of four tackles-for-loss and failing to register a sack against the Lumberjacks. The lone sack for the Sun Devil defense came from wide receiver turned linebacker Tyler Whiley. It would have been nice to see some sort of pressure generated by the guys up front and hopefully this isn't a sign of things to come going forward this season.
In defense of this group, they lost Christian Sam pretty early in the game and Salamo Fiso was held out due to disciplinary reasons. Those are two key guys to be without in any contest. It has not been confirmed whether either two will be back against the Red Raiders on Saturday.
D.J. Calhoun had a solid performance with seven tackles, one tackle-for-loss, and a quarterback hurry. Whiley filled in decently for Sam and Marcus Ball, who was ejected from the game for a targeting call. Like my colleagues and I have said, this group did not really give us the full extent of their playbook and coupled with the lack of some key members, this shouldn't be a surprising grade.
This group was troubling to watch for ASU fans and hopefully this performance demonstrated the importance of Laiu Moeakiola more than the lack of improvement from last year's secondary.
I'm not trying to take away from the talent of guys like NAU's wide-receiver Elijah Marks and their quarterback Case Cookus, but it's worrisome that they were able to throw for 369 yards and that Marks finished with game with 174 yards.
Optimistically, as pointed out by Zac in his post yesterday, this performance will be fixed with the return of Moeakiola and the addition of some schematic blitzing that Graham did not really show in this game. I can't really think of another team in the country for suited to test this group than Patrick Mahomes and Texas Tech, so I suppose we will see what happens next Saturday and that will give us a clear look at what this unit will look like this season.
Special Teams: B+
In the realm of college kickers, Zane Gonzalez is a blessing who will probably go down as one of the most talented kickers to ever put on an ASU jersey. The senior kicker went 3-for-3 including a career-long 53 yards. Gonzalez is going to be climbing up the NCAA all-time leaders list for field goals and he racks up touchbacks like they are nothing. The one blunder in this game came from a missed extra point, but anomalies happen and I'm not worried in the slightest.