Coming into 2017, seemingly the greatest certainty about the Arizona State Sun Devils was the dynamic potential of the offensive weapons at the disposal of redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins.
From the senior backfield tandem of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage to the myriad of outside weapons both new and old, ASU seemed primed to be able to score with nearly anyone on its schedule.
But things didn’t fall into place right away.
The Sun Devils underwhelmed against lowly New Mexico State, then averaged 1.4 yards per carry against San Diego State in a home loss in week two, leaving many outside the program wondering if they could compete in the Pac-12.
Then came a trip to Texas Tech.
“I think, as a group, we did some really good things,” Wilkins said.
That’s an understatement. ASU overcame first quarter struggles to put up 45 points on the Red Raiders.
Wilkins had what head coach Todd Graham called his best game as a Sun Devil, connecting on 27 of 41 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns while adding 25 more on the ground, despite being sacked three times.
The Sun Devils were also finally able to consistently produce on the ground, as Richard and Ballage both found the end zone in the same game for the first time since October 22, 2016 against Washington State. Despite a relatively modest 3.5 yards per carry, both backs proved effective enough to have the running game be a viable option until the final drive when there wasn’t enough time left in the game.
“I think (offensive coordinator) Billy Napier, Coach Graham, all of us did a really good job last week of coming up with a game plan where we’re getting the ball in guys’s hands who deserve it,” wide receivers coach Rob Likens said Tuesday.
The Sun Devils have done just that, as four different receivers — redshirt sophomore John Humphrey, redshirt freshman Frank Darby and sophomores N’Keal Harry and Kyle Williams — have 100-yard games to their credit, matching ASU’s total from a season ago.
Only one, Humphrey against New Mexico State, resulted in a win.
Saturday marks a clean state for an ASU team that needs it, as Graham mentioned at his Tuesday availability.
“All of them count, wins and losses, but we want to be Pac-12 champions,” Graham. “To do that, you have to be in a battle for nine straight weeks.”
The Oregon Ducks will present a different challenge. The 3-0 Ducks’ defense ranks 44th in the nation so far, allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw for under 195 yards per game against them in 2017.
Facing Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s Colorado defense a season ago cost Wilkins a chance of playing the Ducks, as sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole registered his first career start in an ASU loss at Autzen Stadium.
“I took some pretty mean licks against Colorado last year,” Wilkins said. “But one, I’m healthy, so they’ll have a different quarterback they’re facing this year. And they have a new team they’re facing, as well. ”