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Phil Bennett tests ASU’s defense with lack of substitutions

New Mexico State wide receiver OJ Clark (2) gets tackled by Arizona State defensive back J'Marcus Rhodes 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. — Phil Bennett has been a football coach for 40 years. When he makes a decision, you give him the benefit of the doubt, even if the optics look odd.

Arizona State’s season opening 37-31 win over New Mexico State on Thursday offered some of the oddest optics Sun Devil Stadium has ever produced. The temperature was 101 degrees at kickoff, yet Bennett, the Sun Devils’ first-year defensive coordinator, made no substitutions in the first half, and just two in the third quarter with Shannon Forman and Abe Thompson coming in.

“We played 57 snaps the first half,” Bennett said. “It reminded me of my old Baylor days. I wanted to see how they handled it.”

When the Sun Devils jumped out to a 14-0 lead just six minutes and 34 seconds into the game, it didn’t look like it would matter, but ASU’s offense stalled and New Mexico State’s offense got going, rolling up 209 second-quarter yards and pulling within 14-13 at halftime, with only a blocked PAT keeping the score from being tied.

Still, Bennett stuck with his starters and they produced in the clutch. The Sun Devils held the Aggies to just 53 yards in the third quarter, ASU scored 16 points in the period and sophomore cornerback Kobe Williams punctuated the run with a pick-6 to give ASU a 37-13 lead early in the fourth quarter — one of two picks by ASU’s starting cornerbacks.

“When it was 14-13, I wanted to see how they responded,” Bennett said. “That was important to me. Were they going to man up and get the thing under control? The next thing you know it was 37-13.

“It was something to grow on. We’re not doing backflips but we’re going to get better. It was truly a learning experience. There were some young cats out there.”

ASU was shorthanded in the secondary with Marcus Ball and Demonte King hurt, and Chase Lucas and Maurice Chandler both likely sitting out for disciplinary reasons. Bennett said the latter two would be back Monday, and he hoped that would help.

“You saw,” he said, “there’s a little bit of a drop-off right now, especially in the secondary.”

The question for ASU’s defense is how much of a drop-off is there across the board? When Bennett did substitute in the fourth quarter, the Aggies scored 18 points.

While Bennett noted that New Mexico State had the advantage of game-planning all of training camp for ASU and the Sun Devils played a pretty vanilla defense, the Aggies are the worst team ASU will face all season. The Sun Devils are going to need their depth as the season progresses into Pac-12 play. They’re going to need to rest their starters and they are going to sustain injuries at some point.

“Obviously, we’d like to get them 10, 12, 15 plays of rest, but that’s Phil’s job,” coach Todd Graham said. “The guy that’s coaching our defense taught me football.”

The guy that’s coaching the defense wasn’t committing to playing his depth guys just yet.

“I hope,” Bennett said, “but we’ll be selective.”

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