Arizona State’s season opening victory over the New Mexico State Aggies wasn’t a tale of two halves, but rather a story of four very distinct quarters.
Redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins began the game untouchable, completing his first ten passes — including a 53-yard touchdown pass — and guiding the Sun Devils to an early 14-point lead.
The Aggies then dominated the second quarter, scoring 13 unanswered and closing their deficit to just two at halftime.
A couple electrifying plays on offense then propelled ASU to another big lead in the third, but the Aggies were right back on the Devils heels in the fourth, outscoring the Maroon and Gold 18-7 during the final quarter.
For all the inconsistencies that arose in this game — Wilkins’ accuracy, the ASU offensive line’s performance, the secondary’s ability to limit big plays — there was one common theme throughout the night: the Sun Devils’ newcomers contributed in a big way.
When former ASU slot receiver Tim White graduated and moved on to the NFL last season, it was clear the Devils needed someone to step up and become an elite weapon in the intermediate and downfield passing game. The solution came in the form of Oklahoma transfer wideout John Humphrey.
Humphrey was electric Thursday night, often exploding past NMSU defensive backs into the open field and creating problems in the Aggies’ secondary. He finished the night with seven receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Sixty of these yards came on a game-changing touchdown pass from Wilkins, who finally found time in the pocket, reared back and fired a strike to the end zone from the freshly-painted pitchfork at midfield.
Although Humphrey is listed as a redshirt sophomore, Thursday’s game was his first ever at the collegiate level. As he admitted, it was a special moment for him.
“It’s a blessing, it’s been a long way,” Humphrey said. “Stepping on the field is just, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Humphrey spoke after the game about his 60-yard connection to Wilkins, adding that he was the one who drew it up in the huddle.
“We were inside of the huddle and I told Manny to just put it up there,” Humphrey said. “I said we’re gonna need this.”
It was an extremely difficult throw to make, but Wilkins admitted that completing it only required a strong amount of confidence in his receiver.
“I just told him to dig deep,” Wilkins said. “He’s fast as hell and if that dude gets behind the corner then that’s what we’re gonna do, just put that ball up there and let him make a play and that’s what he did.”
Humphrey wasn’t the only newcomer that made a strong impression during his first game as a Sun Devil, as both starting cornerbacks generated big plays. Junior Joey Bryant intercepted a pass in the first quarter and sophomore Kobe Williams returned one for a touchdown in the fourth during Thursday’s victory.
Bryant and Williams joined Humphrey as the other two players on the ASU starting lineup with no previous NCAA Division I-A football experience, but neither looked too out of their element. NMSU starting quarterback Tyler Rogers finished going 40-57 for 398 yards, — a line eerily reminiscent of many box scores ASU fans saw last season — but in context, it really wasn’t that poor of a performance.
Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett understands that he lacks the personnel to allow one-on-one coverages and complicated blitz packages, so he’s forced to play a simple hand when it comes to drawing up his schemes. The Devils sat in the zone all night long, allowing Rogers to complete whatever he wanted in front of the corners.
Allowing explosive offensive plays on the defensive side of the ball was a clear issue last season, but in Bennett’s scheme, they are very unlikely to happen. ASU will see many opposing quarterbacks with similar lines, but it’s a tradeoff they’re willing to make to ensure nothing gets behind them.
Following the game, Graham remained confident in the performance of his two new starting cornerbacks.
“I’m proud of those two corners,” Graham said. “Joey had a big interception early and Kobe had a big interception for a touchdown, that was really awesome. I thought we did some really good things and we were really consistent.”
Despite Graham’s confidence in his program’s performance after the game, it’s clear that the Sun Devils season opener did not go exactly as he drew it up. There are things to review and depth chart decisions to reconsider, but there was one distinct positive to take away from Thursday’s contest: ASU’s newcomers are off to a strong start.