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Sun Devils win, but fail to inspire optimism in season-opener

Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) gets tackled by New Mexico State linebacker Terrill Hanks (2) in the second half during an NCAA college football game, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State defeated New Mexico State 37-31. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. — If I had to use one adjective to describe Arizona State’s 37-31 season-opening win over New Mexico State at Sun Devil Stadium, I’d use ‘meh.’

I know it’s not really a word, but it really does sum up the performance by the team in the maroon and gold uniforms.

The Sun Devils started quickly, putting up two touchdowns by the midway point of the first quarter. But the offensive pace slowed and the defense was forced to play a lot of snaps (more on that later).

Wilkins shines: Junior quarterback Manny Wilkins, who won the quarterback competition over highly-touted transfer Blake Barnett during camp, played well in his 2017 debut. Wilkins was efficient, completing 22-of-27 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t turn the ball over, and showed restraint when he pulled the ball down on runs. Wilkins showed a propensity to try and hurdle defenders a year ago, which led to a few viral video opportunities, but also opened him up to injury.

“My goal was to manage the game the best I could,” Wilkins said after the game.

“I’ve got to be better, I feel like I could have thrown a few more completions just on little things, but I did my job of owning the football.”

Wilkins showed the ability to throw the long ball too, even though he was under duress for much of the evening. In the first quarter, he hit Jalen Harvey on a 53-yard touchdown strike. Then in the third, with ASU leading 17-13, Wilkins uncorked a 60-yard laser to John Humphrey, who got behind two defenders. They were the two longest touchdown throws of Wilkins’ ASU career.

And about his receivers: With budding superstar N’Keal Harry (6 catches for 69 yards) leading the way, and Harvey and Humphrey able to stretch the field, this has the potential to be the best top-to-bottom receiving corps in the Graham era.

And ASU didn’t have the services of Texas transfer Ryan Newsome, who wasn’t available because of injury.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention New Mexico State receiver Jaleel Scott, who was the best receiver on the field Thursday. Scott had eight catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns, including one of the best catches you’ll see all college football season.

Concerns: Arizona State had trouble on the offensive line, both in protecting Wilkins (he was sacked seven times) and opening up holes for backs (Devils running backs had 82 net yards on 25 carries — 3.28 yards a pop).

Senior Demario Richard being healthy after a hellish injury-riddled 2016 season was thought to be a plus. But Richard played only a handful of snaps and got one carry, losing four yards. And he injured his right knee on the play and spent the entire second half on trainer’s table with a bag of ice on it.

Graham didn’t say much about the injury in his postgame conversation with media but did say he didn’t think it was serious in nature.

Defensive substitutions: ASU’s defense, with new coordinator Phil Bennett orchestrating things from the sideline, was passable in its debut. The Sun Devils got six sacks and forced three turnovers, including a 49-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Kobe Williams. But they also allowed 549 yards of offense to the Aggies, a team that averaged only 414 yards per contest a year ago against a light schedule (their only Power 5 opponent in 2016 was Kentucky.)

Maybe more concerning than the numbers was the apparent lack of depth. ASU used the same 11 defensive players for a vast majority of NMSU’s 88 snaps. Bennett didn’t make a defensive sub until well into the third quarter when Koron Crump left for a play with a minor leg injury (he returned) and Tashon Smallwood had to leave after losing his helmet on a play.

Normally, a season opener against a team that ASU should beat handily would be a great time to get a lot of young players some NCAA experience. After all, the Sun Devils were leading by 24 points early in the fourth quarter. And, it’s August in Arizona. The temperature at kickoff was 101 degrees and hovered near the century mark the entire game.

“That is what we expect. All of us. The starting 11 is expected to play all the snaps. It was really no surprise,” defensive lineman Smallwood said.

Graham said in his postgame radio interview that the backups need to get better to earn playing time.

If you’re hoping ASU exceeds the meager expectations placed on the program by local and national analysts, they better grow up fast. The rest of the Sun Devils’ non-conference schedule is no cake walk. San Diego State, who visits Tempe next Saturday, won the Mountain West Conference last year and Texas Tech is perennially one of the most potent offenses in the country.

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