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ASU Football: Sun Devils fight off Southern Utah, weather in season opener win

Arizona State wins 27-24 over Southern Utah in first game of 2023 season

Zac BonDurant

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Kenny Dillingham era kicked off as Arizona State hosted Southern Utah University at Mountain America Stadium. While kickoff was set at 7 p.m., the final play of the game did not come until past 1 a.m. thanks to the unpredictable Arizona weather. The head-spinning week highlighted by the announcement of ASU’s self-imposed bowl ban ended with a sloppy 24-21 win. The bizarre night, which included a nearly three hour weather delay following a haboob and lightning storm, fits Arizona State’s mentality heading into the season: ASU versus the world.

Before ASU could even play its first game of the season, the team received the devastating and demotivating news that they will not participate in postseason bowl play, decision made by ASU Athletic Director Ray Anderson and President Michael Crow. However, the news did not break coach Kenny Dillingham’s spirit nor did it deter the ASU loyal.

An impressive student section turnout was dichotomous to the empty bleachers seen across the stadium. Officially, 47,773 were in attendance for a 103-degree kickoff game, however the weather nor the fans would remain.

After a Southern Utah offensive possession to begin the game resulted in a punt to the Arizona State 32-yard line, the first offensive play from scrimmage was a pass from freshman Quarterback Jaden Rashada to junior Cam Skattebo for a gain of three yards.

Three plays later, Sun Devil fans were treated to the first flash of Rashada’s potential. The true freshman dropped a 33-yard deep ball to the left hashmark, hauled in by was hauled in by Melquan Stoval. A roughing the passer penalty brought the ball down to Southern Utah 6-yard line where transfer running back Cam Skattebo punched it in for six.

It was to the delight of ASU fans that Rashada marched the Devils down the field of its opening drive of the night, providing optimism for the fans from what has made headlines leading up to the game.

Skattebo, the former Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year led the Sun Devils ground game in the opening game, displaying his versatility in the first half adding by two receptions for 11 yards on three targets.

The second quarter began with a Southern Utah drive into Sun Devil territory. Capped off by a flea flicker play for 16 yards, the Thunderbirds marched down to the ASU 12-yard line. Southern Utah tied the game with a 1-yard run by junior running back Targhee Lambson.

A sack at midfield for a 6-yard loss led to a 2nd and 16 for the Sun Devils on offense. A Skattebo short pass gained back eight yards, setting up a rolling play outside the packet for Rashada. An open Skattebo stood at the sticks but the pass fluttered beyond his reach, setting up a decisive fourth down.

Rashada finished the first half of his first collegiate game 18-31 for 236 yards and 2 TDs.

“It (the win) was definitely a big blessing,” said Rashada. “But we definitely have a lot of things we have to go back and fix this week. It’s never as good as you think and it’s also never as bad.”

Dillingham, full of comfidence in his young quarterback, left the offense on the field. Rashada rolled right on fourth-and-eight and lobbed a rainbow to junior receiver Xavier Guillory. The 47-yard touchdown was the first of Rashada’s young career in the maroon and gold, and it could not have come on a better play. Leading 14-7, the Sun Devils second scoring drive of the game ended in seven plays for 77 yards.

“You have to be aggressive to win in college football, I firmly believe that” Dillingham said. “We’re going to be aggressive, we’re not going to play the game scared. Does that mean everything’s always going to go in your favor? No. But we’re not going to play the game scared, we’re going to play to win the football game.”

With 2:56 remaining before halftime, gusts of rain and dust swallowed Tempe, affecting the visibility substantially. The ASU third scoring drive of the half began when junior tight end Jaylin Conyers ignited the drive with a 43-yard burst down the Arizona State sideline into Thunderbird territory.

Skattebo’s 12-yard run up the middle on first down continued the momentum. After a check down across the middle to Guillory brought the Sun Devils into the red zone, the last play of the half resulted in a 3-yard touchdown pass to Junior Wide Receiver Troy Omeire in the corner for a fading catch to extend the lead to 21-7.

Then the storm came.

Lightning bolt one after another, sideways rain and threatening gusts of wind derailed the second half kickoff for two hours and 45 minutes.

The majority of the fans left, but those faithful stuck around to see players finally take the field at 11:15 p.m.

The last time the Sun Devils football program experienced a weather delay was the home opener to the 2004 season against No. 16 ranked Iowa. The game ended in a 44-7 rout of the Hawkeyes.

Junior receiver Elijhah Badger entered the game and received the opening kickoff to a sloppy second half. Badger and junior linebacker Will Shafer served first half suspensions as a result of ejections from last season’s game against Arizona.

The adverse weather affected both offenses to a great degree as five consecutive punts between the two teams led to an uneventful beginning of the second half.

“It just stopped the momentum a little bit ,” said Skattebo. “We just have to come ready to play more football, no matter what time it is. They came out and were ready to play. We have to bring that same energy, and we didn’t quite bring it until the last drive of the game, realistically.”

With 49 seconds remaining in the third quarter. The Thunderbirds caught a large chunk of yardage after a 52-yard catch. Senior receiver Isaiah Wooden slipped through the middle of the field for Southern Utah’s largest play of the night, setting up the eventual score from a 17-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Justin Miller to freshman receiver Zach Mitchell. SUU’s second scoring drive of the contest went five plays for 70 yards and took 3 minutes and 30 seconds off the clock. The Sun Devils began to feel pressure for the first time in the game.

The beginning of the fourth quarter dawned upon the rain-soaked Mountain America Stadium with a Sun Devil drive into Thunderbird territory. After coming as close at the Thunderbirds’ 6-yard line, back to back holding calls moved the Devils outside of the red zone where they settled for. a38-yard field goal, extended the lead to 24-10.

After a three-and-out by Arizona State, the Sun Devils found themselves punting on their own 39-yard line. Southern Utah’s Jordan Washington came around the edge to block the ASU punt, sending the ball toppling on the turf before it was eventually scooped up and returned by George Ramirez for a touchdown with an escort.

The once commanding two score game now felt it jeopardy, and Southern Utah was primed to upset Dillingham.

“We played really, really, really clean in the first half,” said Dillingham. “Then you come out the exact opposite, and the question is why? How do you let a circumstance affect us like that? That’s something I gotta find a resolution to. Something that myself and the staff have to find a way for that not to happen.”

Penalties became a major storyline for the Sun Devils in the second half. In the second half alone the Sun Devils racked up 85 yards in penalties off eight penalties.

Utilizing the new clock rule in college football, Arizona State managed to burn the final five minutes, mostly on the ground. After converting the three first downs on the drive, the victory formation came out for the first time for Dillingham’s Devils. After the game, players came to the defense of the freshman quarterback in his first win, on his 20th birthday nonetheless.

“That’s this kid’s first college start,” said senior defensive back and team leader Jordan Clark. “He works his ass off and he won his first football game under insane circumstances.”

A turbulent week for the Arizona State football program ended in a turbulent 24-21 win at home in the first game of the 2023 season.