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ASU Football: Familiar faces shine, new ones impress in 40-3 victory over NAU

Deep sigh of relief

Football, it’s time to talk about real football.

The Tempe sky was lighting up like the Fourth of July for Arizona State’s season home-opener, and the Sun Devils lit up the scoreboard, defeating Northern Arizona 40-3 Thursday night at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.

If you were hoping to see what Arizona State’s offense is capable of with Emory Jones under center, even against an opponent like NAU, tonight was the night to be at Sun Devil Stadium.

The ASU students came out in droves tonight to see their team in action, and the atmosphere was palpable.

“The energy that they give, it’s just fun to watch,” coach Herm Edwards said. That student section, I love watching them. They’ve got a lot going on over there.”

New look offense

Although it was a slow start for ASU offensively, Jones brought the Sun Devils into field goal range on the first drive of the season, throwing for 54 yards on four completions in that sequence.

The quarterback admitted feeling butterflies pregame.

“We were a little amped up, a little antsy on our feet. The whole team settled down, and we executed,” Jones said.

The second drive led to a punt after a failed deep shot to newcomer Zeek Freeman. After that, the offense found its stride, quite literally.

The running backs Daniyel Ngata and X Valladay combined for 105 yards on the ground in the first half, with Valladay finding the endzone on a five-yard rush. Ngata had a big 29 yard rush on that drive as well. A 17 yard scramble-and-score on the following drive by Jones put the Sun Devils up 17-0.

Jones seemed very comfortable when he dropped back to pass, also. He would go through his progressions from the first read to check-down very smoothly. He got the ball out quickly, and on time with his receivers all night long.

His line up front was a big factor in that, a problem the Sun Devils have had in the Herm Edwards era. Rotating right guard Joey Ramos came limping off the field after an NAU strip sack, but that was the extent of the issues for the offensive line tonight.

In the first half, ASU ran for 156 yards and three touchdowns on the backs of Valladay, Ngata and Jones, who scored two of those touchdowns by himself. To compliment the run game, Jones threw for 120 yards and 10 completions on 12 attempts. Jones finished up with 152 passing yards on 13 completions at a 72.2% rate.

There was an emphasis tonight to share the love on offense, given the lack of experience for the majority of the group.

“You don’t want to put everything on one guy. You definitely want to keep the defense on their toes,” Valladay said.

Aside from a few penalties and missed tackles, a nearly flawless defense

At the half, the Sun Devils had themselves a commanding 24-3 lead over NAU, largely in part to the performance of the defense.

An interception by linebacker Kyle Soelle and a muffed field goal attempt by NAU were the exclamation points on a well-played first half on defense, but it was everything in between that impressed tonight.

The ASU defense allowed just 82 yards of total offense in the first two quarters. There was definitely a gap in skill between the Sun Devils’ defensive front and NAU’s O-line, but ASU took full advantage, giving up only 25 rushing yards through the first 30 minutes.

An impressive first half of football for the maroon and gold, and it was pretty much over from there.

X Valladay continued his big day with a 27-yard touchdown run to open up the scoring after the break. Valladay, a grad-transfer from Wyoming, is the active FBS leader in rushing yards, and you can see why. His quick cuts to the outside and his hard-nose running between the tackles is what every offense dreams of. Valladay finished with 119 yards on 16 carries to go along with his two touchdowns.

“It was a game where we went in with a mindset of trying to run the football, and we accomplished that,” Edwards said.

The defense quickly reminded NAU who was in charge with an interception by Macen Williams, to give Jones and the offense a short field to work with. That led to another field goal to push the lead out to 37-3.

“I thought the (defensive line) played pretty good,” Edwards said. “They got after the quarterback and stopped the run. That’s what we needed to do.”

Speaking of field goals, kicker Carter Brown had a nice showing tonight, going 4-4 on his attempts, with two coming from 44 yards out. Special teams as a whole played well, pinning NAU deep in their own territory several times, and making hard tackles on kickoffs.

As the fourth quarter wound down and fans beat the post-game sandstorm, ASU finished up a solid first game with the backups to run out the clock.

All in all, it has to be nice for the program to start the fresh season with good building blocks. Especially considering that there were over 40 players participating in their first game together.

This was a good learning experience for the Sun Devils, but the real test is next weekend in Stillwater where ASU will take on no. 12 Oklahoma State.

Until then, Arizona State is 1-0.