TEMPE — It wasn’t supposed to start like that.
Sacramento State received the opening kickoff and marched right through the Arizona State Sun Devils. The Hornets kept the ball for nearly eight minutes on a 17-play drive. They converted four third downs in the process.
Alas, the ASU defense stiffened inside their own red zone and Sac State had to settle for a 33-yard field goal attempt by Jesse Aguilar. Arizona State’s Robert Nelson darted through and blocked the kick, basically squelching any remaining energy (or scoring threat) the Hornets would have for the rest of the game.
Taylor Kelly threw five first-half touchdown passes to five different receivers and the Sun Devils cruised to a 55-0 rout of their visitors from the Big Sky Conference to open their 2013 campaign.
But about that first drive by Sacramento State…
“I was kind of mad that we weren’t pressing up on third down,” head coach Todd Graham said after the game. “I was trying to figure out a way to stop ’em.”
It would be awhile before Sacramento State (0-2) moved the chains again. After gaining 59 yards on that first possession, Sac State would earn only 33 yards on their next eight possessions. They didn’t get another first down until quarterback Garrett Safron hit Shane Harrison on a 15-yard pass to the ASU 43-yard line — in the third quarter! That drive was terminated by an interception by Sun Devil linebacker Grandville Taylor, who returned it 67 yards to the Hornets’ two-yard line just two plays later. It was one of four turnovers forced by the Sun Devils.
Offensively, ASU operated with tremendous precision while Kelly was at the controls. The redshirt junior completed 23-of-31 passes for 300 yards to go along with his career-high-tying five scoring strikes.
“I felt a lot more comfortable, just with the offense — the offensive line did a great job tonight giving me the ability to get some time back there and get it to my playmakers,” Kelly said.
Senior tight end Chris Coyle, who caught two passes for 48 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown, noticed a marked difference in the Sun Devils’ signal caller.
“Truly, it’s his confidence. It’s his second year in the system and it’s a tough system to play in — we’ve got a lot of different looks and different formations, different moving parts every play,” Coyle said, “one play could have five different looks that we could give to the defense, so the biggest thing is he understands the playbook and we’ve got more weapons now, so he’s comfortable with spreading the ball out.”
The Devils (1-0) rolled up 523 yards of offense, but things hit a snag when Kelly and the first team left the game early in the third quarter, leading 45-0. Sophomore Michael Eubank took the controls of the offense on a possession that started at the Hornets’ two-yard line, but took a delay of game penalty as the Sun Devils had trouble getting the play in from the sideline. It was one of very few miscues on the night for ASU.
“I don’t think I could have it go any better than it did,” Graham said. “I like the fact that we got challenged a little bit on that first drive.”
The second-year head coach was striving for his defense to get four takeaways, have 100 percent ball security and zero penalties. Two out of three isn’t bad — Eubank’s delay penalty was the only flag the Devils saw all night.
But now, the challenge gets difficult. Much more difficult. Arizona State will host defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin next Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
“We wanted to get this first win under our belt, but now we immediately have to move forward to Wisconsin,” Coyle said. “We know we have big games after that as well, but the next step is Wisconsin so we’re 100 percent focused on that.
“hey were at the Rose Bowl last year and we know what kind of players they have — they’re a big, tough physical team.”
Wisconsin opened their season with a 45-0 win over UMASS and hosts Tennessee Tech Saturday in Madison.