On heels of bowl loss, Arizona State players optimistic

Dec 18, 2018, 7:39 AM

Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) hands off the ball to running back Eno Benjamin (3) dur...

Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins (5) hands off the ball to running back Eno Benjamin (3) during the second half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

(AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS — The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Arizona State captured the attention of the college football world when it hired ex-NFL head coach Herm Edwards last December.

The school’s head football coach changed.

Its defensive coordinator changed.

And Athletic Director Ray Anderson spoke of more movement to come. Yet a year later, the Sun Devils record remained the same.

Arizona State fell to the No. 21 Fresno State Bulldogs 31-20 in the Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl game on Saturday. In his first season as head coach, Edwards led the Sun Devils finish to a 7-6 overall record, the same mark Todd Graham coached ASU to last year.

But players insist the program’s culture is changing, and it is Edwards’ leadership that may guide the team to more victories in the future.

“You just see it in the guys’ eyes on the field, there’s a want to play for him,” quarterback Manny Wilkins said. “And when you have a group of guys that want to play for your head coach, the sky’s the limit.”

Saturday’s loss was Wilkins’ final game for ASU.

“I’m good. I left it all out there so that’s all I needed to do,” Wilkins said before an ear-to-ear grin emerged on the senior’s face.

Wilkins said in the post-game press conference that he plans to attend the NFL combine.

The departure of Wilkins, a three-year starter for the Sun Devils, will leave a vacated seat that four-star commits Jayden Daniels and Joey Yellen hope to fill.

Edwards remains unshaken by the conclusion of his first-year campaign. His roster had some of the ingredients left by Graham, and he peppered in his flare with a few of his own recruits.

He already is looking forward to next season’s team.

“We built somewhat of a foundation through Manny and some of the seniors,” Edwards said. “And I think going forward now with Eno (Benjamin) and some of the guys coming back, we kind of set a standard of what we try to accomplish.”

Benjamin was one of the standouts for the Sun Devils all season, and his impressive sophomore campaign carried into the Las Vegas Bowl. Benjamin set a Sun Devil record for most rushing yards in a single season with his performance on Saturday. The Texas native racked up 118 rushing yards on 23 carries, scoring one touchdown and finishes the year with 1,642 total rushing yards.

When asked about what setting the single-season rushing record meant to him, Benjamin said, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.”

As Benjamin said it, he buried his face in his hands.

More changes are coming to the ASU roster, as Edwards and his staff have so far collected 21 verbal commits from the 2019 recruiting class. As Edwards begins to cement his prints in Tempe, the pressure to inject real change, meaning more wins, will follow him.

With the loss Saturday, Arizona State is now 14-16-1 all-time in bowl game appearances.

His team’s number one goal this year was to reach the Pac-12 Championship game, Edwards said, a goal for which the Sun Devils fell one game short.

The expectations around Tempe for next year?

They were clear to everyone in the locker room.

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On heels of bowl loss, Arizona State players optimistic