The Arizona State Sun Devils may have lost the game on Saturday night, but what may have fallen even further out of reach for the Sun Devils is a visible identity.
“We gotta be able to run the football,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “We need to just go to work and get better and find what our identity is."
The Sun Devils averaged just 1.4 yards per carry and 44 rushing yards in total against the Aztecs who compiled 297 rushing yards and 6.5 yards per carry in their 30-20 win over Arizona State.
Arizona State ran for 2,319 yards placing in the top-half of the Pac-12 in 2014. Then saw its run total dwindle to 1,578 and third-to-last in the conference last season. This year, it’s game two, and ASU is searching for answers.
“We’re supposed to be a run, play-action pass team and we’re not able to run the ball,” Graham said. “We didn’t feel like we could run because we tried to run some things inside, but had some outside stuff and kept bouncing.”
Equipped with Kalen Ballage, one of the most hyped running backs in the college football preseason, the Sun Devils still couldn’t find a way to run the ball on Saturday night.
Demario Richard was sidelined with a knee injury. Ballage had 34 first half rushing yards, but was what Graham said “dinged up” towards the end of the game, as he finished with 44. Nick Ralston rushed for 18 yards on three carries and freshmen Eno Benjamin and Trelon Smith didn’t see the field.
While it may have been San Diego State’s extremely effective 3-3-5 defense that halted the run game, Graham took it upon his own team, saying his running backs needed further blocking assistance from his offense line who gave up five sacks.
After Arizona State’s touchdown that put the Sun Devils down 10 points, ASU missed a two-point conversion that would have made it an eight-point game with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. Graham reflected on the missed opportunity as Arizona State’s inability to block.
“We’re just not getting people blocked,” Graham said. “I thought when we scored, we should have scored the two-point play. We just blew the execution on it. There’s only one guy over there. Two guys to block and one guy with the ball in his hands, so I thought that was a big play.”
But an underwhelming run game made room for an effective Sun Devil passing game. Manny Wilkins nearly had back-to-back 300-yard performances, as he threw for 298 passing yards and two touchdowns against the Aztecs.
“They were just loading the box, so we were just taking shots down the field,” Wilkins said. “You know, we had a couple that we got and we had couple that we just didn’t come down with.”
Wilkins connected with Frank Darby for a 53-yard touchdown that powered him to a 111-yard career best performance. Kyle Williams broke out for 73 yards on four catches with a 35-yard catch as his longest. N’keal Harry, who finished with 49 yards, received a 20-yard pass and Jalen Harvey caught his longest ball at 19 yards.
Not only has Wilkins established himself as the fire power of Arizona State’s offense, but he’s taking deep shots down the field and executing. With Arizona State’s exceptionally talented receiving core and now inability to run the football, Wilkins may be Arizona State’s new answer to its identity crisis.