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With true freshmen starting, ASU can attract recruits and save the Pac-12

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels scrambles for a first down against Kent State during the first half of an NCAA college football game Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

Welcome to the Pathetic 12, where football has fallen and can’t get up. A power conference in name only.

Arizona State took a stand on Thursday. Not a stand strong enough to lean on. More like a kickstand, something to keep them upright until further notice.

A 30-7 win over Kent State wasn’t a masterpiece. But it was better than finger painting. It was good enough for the occasion.

“It’s a special moment, to go out there and get my first college win,” quarterback Jayden Daniels said. “But there’s a lot we have to improve on. I can’t be too content.”

There are reasons to think ASU can stack another winning season on top of Herm Edward’s audacious debut as head coach. They played angry in the second half. They may have found a worthy successor to N’Keal Harry. Meanwhile, their freshman quarterback is currently digesting his first plateful of college experience, and will surely benefit from all the calories.

If things don’t go according to plan, at least their punter is phenomenal.

Their offensive line looks suspect. So does their ability to rush the passer without blitzing. Missed tackles seem to be an eternal curse in this program. But first impressions aren’t always to be trusted in college football, a sport that doesn’t believe in preseason games.

As always, much depends on the quarterback. While the Valley has been consumed with Cardinals rookie Kyler Murray, ASU has handed the keys to Daniels, who arrives with 53 high school starts on his resume.

Daniels was spotty at times. He looked impossibly young, even for a college student. But his athleticism is striking. Just like Jake Plummer, he seemed to shine when plays went off script and into the realm of improvisation, when his natural instincts took over.

“I am very pleased with what this guy did,” offensive coordinator Rob Likens said. “He was pressured. He did not have any foolish turnovers, I thought he did very well securing the football, sliding when he had to slide, sometimes taking a sack when you just take that sack … so I thought he did great job.”

Daniels will need time to blossom. A meager 10-0 halftime advantage on Thursday was proof, as was an offense that struggled to carve holes for star running back Eno Benjamin. But Brandon Aiyuk flashed as a big-play weapon on Thursday, a much-needed complement to Benjamin. And if Daniels learns fast and grows on the job, Edwards will have scored a major coup:

Barring unforeseen circumstances, ASU will have their quarterback for the next three seasons, minimum. Edwards will reap the recruiting benefits of starting a true freshmen at an impact position, proving there is no pecking order in his program, a place where youngsters can play right away, where dues don’t have to be paid.

That means something to young athletes, the ones who don’t have time to wait.

Kent State wasn’t exactly Cupcake U. They played physical. They weren’t pushed around. But they weren’t much of a threat, either. The Golden Flashes had three fumbles and a muffed punt in the first quarter. Their starting quarterback was benched early. Their head coach, Sean Lewis, is only 33, or nearly half as old as Edwards. Their talent couldn’t compare to ASU’s, and for that, we can all be thankful.

Perceptually, this is a rough time for the Pac-12. The conference has lost 12 of their past 16 bowl games, and three of their four victories came by a combined total of four points. In the College Football Playoff’s five-year history, the Pac-12 has been shut out three times. Meanwhile, UCLA and Arizona both lost their season debuts in 2019. This is a membership that can no longer handle Bearcats and Rainbow Warriors.

But this is also a big year for Edwards. The South division is wide open. ASU has an opportunity to build on their new foundation, expanding their recruiting base in California while taking advantage of the ongoing issues at USC.

The latter is the key to awakening the long-slumbering giant that is ASU football, a program hoping to save the Pac-12 from itself.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

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