Against Kent State, ASU aims for another big season-opening win

Aug 29, 2019, 6:05 AM
This Aug. 8, 2019, photo provided by Sun Devil Athletics shows Arizona State University freshman qu...
This Aug. 8, 2019, photo provided by Sun Devil Athletics shows Arizona State University freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels at practice in Payson, Ariz. (Radmen Niven/Sun Devil Athletics via AP)
(Radmen Niven/Sun Devil Athletics via AP)

Arizona State has not lost its first football game of the season since 2015. That year, the Sun Devils played a Texas A&M team featuring future Arizona Cardinal Christian Kirk.

Since then, ASU’s opening night scheduling has been laxer, and the Sun Devils outscored opponents 130-51 over the past three years.

Kent State enters Tempe to begin the 2019 campaign as another team that Arizona State is expected to knock off swiftly, with a spread set at 25 points in ASU’s favor by multiple Vegas sportsbooks.

Essential info:

What: Kent State vs. Arizona State

When: Thursday, 7 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Network

Radio: KTAR News 92.3 FM

Get to know Kent State

Kent State was 2-10 last season under first-year head coach Sean Lewis. The Golden Flashes only scored 23.9 points per game while allowing 36.7.

What Kent State has going for it is experience. Auburn transfer Woody Barrett is back for his second season at quarterback, and he is joined by his top three receivers from last year and a veteran offensive line.

Barrett was the best part of his team’s 2018. He put up 2,239 yards on 58.7% passing, while also rushing for 503 yards. He broke the school’s record for completions in a season (229).

Another player to watch is wideout Antwan Dixon. He led the Golden Flashes in receiving yards as a freshman in 2015, but missed the next two seasons due to a rare blood disorder. After he recovered from a bone marrow transplant, he made it back to the field in 2018. He led the team in catches with 52 and was awarded with the Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year Award. He is back as a redshirt senior in 2019.

On the other side of the ball, the Golden Flashes defense imploded in 2018. It didn’t put a lot of pressure on the opposing quarterback and was anemic against the run (over 220 yards per game).

That is a concern for a team facing Eno Benjamin, who returns after breaking ASU’s single-season rushing record. Worse yet, KSU’s sole All-MAC defender, nose tackle Kalil Morris, has graduated, leaving an even bigger hole up front.

How ASU matches up

The common theme for ASU’s opening night dominance over the past three seasons has been strong performances from the quarterback-receiver combination of Manny Wilkins and N’Keal Harry. They are both gone, and for the first time in the modern era (1972), ASU’s Week 1 starter will be a true freshman.

Jayden Daniels taking over will be an adjustment for head coach Herm Edwards’ program, but based on Kent State’s recent track record, this could be the ideal game for him to get his feet wet. Since KSU could struggle to reach the quarterback, Daniels could get good protection to gain experience with his reads and the playbook. Daniels could also take advantage of Kent State’s struggles against the run, as he was rated the second-best dual-threat quarterback recruit of his class by 247 Sports.

Benjamin should be counted on to have a monster game. Since it will be Daniels’ first taste of NCAA action, the offense could decide to rely on its proven stud at running back. Benjamin is just 216 rushing yards away from 2,000 for his ASU career, so that could be something to keep track of throughout the game.

On defense, Arizona State returns a strong secondary to contain Barrett. Sophomore safety Aashari Crosswell is coming off of earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention, and cornerbacks Chase Lucas and Kobe Williams are also looking to build on strong seasons in 2018. Aside from defending Barrett’s passing attack, the Sun Devils should be mostly concerned with him leaving the pocket or throwing screens, a prominent portion of Kent State’s offense last year.

On paper, this game should be a layup for Edwards’ team. But, as he discussed in his Monday press conference, anything can happen when teams hit the field for the first time.

“Opening day is opening day,” Edwards said. “You don’t know what to expect. You assume some things are going to happen, but until you get into the heat of the contest, you don’t know. Sideline conduct is important, how you get plays in, how you communicate on the sideline. Some of these guys have never done that.”

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Against Kent State, ASU aims for another big season-opening win