TEMPE, Ariz. — T.J. Rushing didn’t have to think long when asked to describe the challenge that Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Red Raiders’ passing offense will present on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium. All Rushing had to do was examine Tech’s passing stats in a win over Stephen F. Austin on Saturday in Lubbock, Texas.
“Six hundred and thirty-three yards in Game 1?” ASU’s defensive backs coach said, smiling. “It’s a real challenge!”
Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus offered the Sun Devils a legitimate test in a Week 1 win, but Mahomes is considered a dark horse for the Heisman Trophy this season and he didn’t do anything to quiet that talk when he completed 30 of 43 passes for 483 yards and four touchdowns in just 2.5 quarters of play in Saturday’s 69-17 win.
ASU coach Todd Graham said Tuesday that Houston quarterback Case Keenum (now with the Los Angeles Rams) was the best he’s ever seen at operating coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense.
“This kid is in the ballpark with him,” Graham added. “This guy is a guy who has a great understanding of the system and he’s big. He’s 230 some pounds and 6-3 and he just flicks it; he can throw it 40 yards like that.
“Their system is one that is very true to the Air Raid so it goes really fast and they screen you from sideline to sideline, roll this way and throw it back over here. It’s a very different type of football from what you normally play. This team is more like Washington State except, I think, more talented as far as the skill positions.”
Texas Tech finished the 2015 season with the nation’s second-best passing attack at 388.2 yards per game, and Mahomes was the nation’s fourth leading passer as a sophomore with 4,653 yards. After one week, Tech leads the nation in passing yards and Mahomes is ranked second despite playing just over half a game.
Rushing said Mahomes does a good job spreading the ball around and a great job reading coverage so it’s impossible to zero in on one or two receivers.
“Everybody is live,” Rushing said. “Each route.”
That’s a concern for ASU, which will play without screen-defending linebacker Marcus Ball for one half due to his suspension for targeting against NAU. Perhaps the greatest concern, however, is Mahomes’ ability to extend plays.
“The message is never ease up,” Rushing said. “Stay in coverage. Even though you’ve got him covered once, he’s going to prolong the play, so cover them twice. Sometimes cover ’em three times. Stay in coverage, stay with the dudes and stay body on body.
“You hope that he takes an unnecessary risk and our guys are there in position and we come down with the ball. That’s a huge emphasis every week, is takeaways. Hopefully we can get a few of those on Saturday.”
Graham said starting safety Laiu Moeakiola (hamstring) practiced on Tuesday and is expected to play against Tech, giving the Sun Devils back perhaps their most important player on defense. Moeakiola did not play against NAU.
“It will help us a lot,” Graham said. “He’s really smart.”
Graham said linebacker Christian Sam (right foot) was “very limited walking around” at practice on Tuesday after suffering a right foot injury. “We’ll know more tomorrow,” Graham said.
— Senior defensive lineman Viliami Latu didn’t play last week for violating program standards, but Graham said he would return this week. Graham still isn’t certain if senior linebacker Salamo Fiso, also suspended for violating program standards, will be back.
— Graham said the Sun Devils played 79 plays on offense, 80 on defense against NAU. The goal is 65 to 70 snaps on defense; 85 on offense.
“A lot of that is us not getting off the field,” Graham said. “Some of it is we’ve got to be more efficient. If we run the ball and play-action pass and when we operate efficient on offense and we don’t turn the ball over… every time you turn the ball over you’re going to play five less plays on offense.”
— ASU kicker Zane Gonzalez is five field goals shy of tying Luis Zendejas’ school record of 81. The NCAA lists Zendejas with 78, but the NCAA did not recognize bowl stats in the 1980s; ASU does. Gonzalez is nine field goals shy of tying the Pac-12 record (85, Kai Forbath, UCLA) and 12 shy of tying the NCAA record set by Dustin Hopkins (88) of Florida State.