In an environment where non-conference FCS opponents in September are becoming more frowned upon, Thursday night was a prime example of the first-week woes that football teams face. Emotions are high, cameras are rolling, fans are screaming. It is understandable.
The scoreboard from Arizona State’s (1-0) matchup with Southern Utah (0-2) reflects an entirely different game, a 41-14 beatdown in favor of ASU, with over 200 yards rushing and four forced turnovers.
Sometimes the big guy has to beat down on the little guy, and maybe the little guy can teach him a few things along the way.
The truth is, the Southern Utah game revealed a lot about the Sun Devils.
The ASU running attack did not miss a step this offseason, particularly redshirt senior Rachaad White.
Special teams could win or lose them games come October.
Penalties are a major (coachable) issue.
The front seven on defense held its ground in the absence of Jermayne Lole.
And this was all noticeable before the first quarter ended.
“It was bad football, it was sloppy football, it was embarrassing football to be honest,” head coach Herm Edwards said. “That being said, I’ve never had a bad win.”
Special teams was already under a microscope for a multitude of reasons: a hands-team mishap against USC in 2020 arguably lost ASU its opener last year (and never really improved outside of the return game), nationally-recognized punter Michael Turk transferred away from the program, and kicker Christian Zendejas dipped his toe in this transfer portal before ultimately making the decision to return to Tempe.
Red flags were apparent from the opening kickoff when senior kicker Logan Tyler pulled the kick out of bounds just shy of the pylon. The woes would not stop there. A roughing the punter call extended the second Thunderbird drive of the night. Not long after, freshman Will Shaffer muffed a squib-kickoff and gave Southern Utah back-to-back drives. Tyler also missed two extra points.
“I told [Tyler], ‘Hey man, you’re hitting a wedge, just hit a wedge and kick the ball” Edwards said, referencing the opening kickoff. “He took his driver out. He took the driver out and hit it out of bounds...but it’s the first game.”
When a team wins by multiple possessions, these hiccups seem minor, especially when they mostly occur in the first quarter. However, we are less than a year removed from ASU’s 2020 season opening loss at USC, in which a botched hands-team recovery attempt gave the Trojans one last chance, one they took advantage of.
There was one bright moment for special teams coach Shawn Slocum’s unit: freshman punter Eddie Czaplicki. In his first attempt, and in the wake of a slew of mishaps, Czaplicki drilled a punt with enough touch to roll it inside the two yard-line. Something so miniscule can be refreshing for a team that loses its high-profile punter to the transfer portal.
The third play from scrimmage offensively for ASU was a strong one, a pretty back-shoulder ball from junior quarterback Jayden Daniels to sophomore receiver Andre Johnson. After that, the downfield passing attack was nonexistent.
Daniels completed 10 of 12 passes for 132 yards before exiting in the third quarter with a cramp. The running game, however, picked up where it left off last season. Rachaad White spearheaded the ground attack with 58 yards on seven carries, adding two touchdowns. Deamonte “Chip” Trayanum rushed six times for 52 yards, with two house calls himself. Freshman Daniyel Ngata and junior receiver Ricky Pearsall both rushed for touchdowns as well.
The offensive line did a solid job moving defenders around in the run attack, as well as pass protection, holding the Thunderbirds to just two sacks, and slingshotting the skill players to 222 yards rushing.
“I thought [the offensive lineman] were physical. I thought they did a good job,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said. “I don’t think we had any true, big time pressures on Jayden.”
That is 41 points on six rushing touchdowns. This was the first game Jayden Daniels did not throw a touchdown pass since the 2019 Territorial Cup Victory over UArizona.
The possession game will have to be a point of emphasis going forward. Giving USC or Washington two possessions in a row, something ASU got away with Thursday, might be the difference between victory and defeat. Add on 13 penalties for 135 yards and those games could get ugly quickly.