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ASU Football: Fundamentals, in-game adjustments show improvement from 2021 in 40-3 win over NAU

No better way to start the season

A lot of the flashiest moments were recognizable for Arizona State (1-0) in its 40-3 win over Northern Arizona (0-1).

An effective one-two punch in the backfield, a decisive dual-threat quarterback and a stifling defense were all highlights of ASU Football over the last three years. These facets shined again in the season opener.

So what makes this team different, for better or worse?

It’s tough to tell after game one. NAU is an FCS opponent. The real test is next week in Stillwater. But there wasn’t a much better way ASU could have started the season, still slightly buzzed off a cruel hangover that was this offseason.

In-game improvements

For starters, the penalty bug was a mild one. ASU committed four penalties for 35 yards, a massive step above last year’s season opener against Southern Utah when the Sun Devils were penalized 13 times for 135 yards.

“To average four or five fouls a game, you are okay,” Edwards said. “We are going to be pretty good during the season. You just don’t want them to be ones that really hurt you, and a couple of them stalled our offense.”

The first flag of the night slowed down the offense. A false start from Isaia Glass led to a 15-yard set of downs that ended in a punt.

An offsides call on Anthonie Cooper nullified a pick-six for Kejuan Markham, but NAU quarterback RJ Martinez recognized the free play and took a shot. Cooper was subbed out. On the same drive, Ro Torrence committed a facemask penalty on a third-down stop, extending the Lumberjack drive. Torrence was subbed out.

NAU botched the snap on the field goal attempt to end the drive. The Sun Devils’s least-disciplined drive ended with no points allowed. The only penalty in the second half was on Chris Edmonds’s interception return, but the turnover was upheld.

It’s something to monitor against stronger opponents, but no doubt an improvement from last year.

On to ball protection, the lone Sun Devil turnover came on a strip-sack of Jones near the end of the first half.

“I just think we have to be aggressive, we’re going to be more aggressive this year,” Edwards said. “And (the turnover was) one of those deals. Everybody else does it it’s great. When I do it it’s like ‘why did you do that coach?’ Well why not? Right? I mean worst thing that can happen is what happened, we gave them three points. And if I put it on the defense, I said, ‘that’s on me’. Bail me out, bail the coach out, right? And the defense, they were able to hold them so that’s good.”

Jones forced no passes into double coverage. He ran, often taking hits, but covered the football. So did the running backs and receivers. The offense played strong, sound and fundamental football.

Working within the system

All signs pointed to ASU feeding Daniyel Ngata and X Valladay the ball in the run game, and that’s exactly what offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas did.

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

They ran the ball 36 (234 yards, four touchdowns) times, and threw it 18. Not bad if you are trying to keep the playbook under wraps before a big non-conference game.

The same goes for the defense. Anybody could’ve predicted captains Kyle Soelle and Merlin Robertson leading the team in tackles (5 each). Defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson took what was given to him, which was a lot of no-huddle, and he didn’t do too much at the line of scrimmage.

The interceptions came to them, First, Kyle Soelle played his zone well in coverage, and a poor throw ended up right in his arms. Edmonds’s second-half interception popped up perfectly off a well-defended play from D.J. Taylor.

Albeit marginally, ASU won the field-position game with an average starting point of their own 33-yard line. NAU’s average was their own 30. Kicker Carter Brown also impressed with a 4-for-4 showing on field goals, the longest being 44 yards.

From an execution standpoint, this is what you expect from a Power-Five team playing an FCS opponent. There will always be corners of film to nitpick, but this season-opener is a strong foundation heading into a four-week stretch against three ranked opponents.

“I took a peek at the team that we play next week. They don’t mess around,” Edwards said. So I think that was a part of it, I think we played really good.”

Consider it the prologue, and chapter one will be a doozy.