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Ugly win against Sacramento State raises questions for Sun Devil offense

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) tries to elude Sacramento State linebacker Armon Bailey (49) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

TEMPE, Ariz. – Well, at least the kicker looks good. And the defense has been solid.

Two games into the 2019 season, those have been the high points for Arizona State. That, and the fact that the Sun Devils are 2-0 following their 19-7 win over Sacramento State on Friday.

The offense has yet to find a rhythm, though. And that’s a concern with a trip to East Lansing looming next weekend.

“No consistency on our offense at all,” Herm Edwards pointed out. “Really moving the ball in increments. It seems to be a big play, or nothing and a punt.”

Most of the first half against the Hornets fell into that “nothing” category. The Devils went into halftime up 3-0 with just four first downs. They thought they had a touchdown at one point, but A.J. Carter fumbled at the goal line. Beyond that, they couldn’t get much of anything going, and Jayden Daniels was scrambling just to survive behind the line of scrimmage.

For his part, Daniels took most of the blame on himself in the postgame press conference. And while that’s impressive maturity for a true freshman playing just his second college game, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The offensive line -– which is also suddenly pretty inexperienced –- had issues keeping Sacramento State out of ASU’s backfield. And receivers were dropping passes when Daniels did get them the ball.

Since the day Daniels was named the starter in camp, Edwards has stressed the importance of the other guys on offense stepping up to help him develop good habits. They showed flashes of that in the second half of the Week 1 victory over Kent State, but struggled for chunks of Friday’s game. And that made for some ugly football.

“We needed our defense to play as good as they played tonight,” Edwards explained. “That becomes tenuous. The last two weeks, the defense has given up 14 points total. You can’t keep living like that. Offensively we’ve got to get some points on the board. And we’ve got to sustain some drives. That’s the disappointing thing.”

Even Eno Benjamin was bottled up for most of the night, as the Hornets wisely and predictably stacked their defense to take away the run. But he broke off a few of those big plays in the second half to salvage the win. A 33-yard run on fourth down early in the third quarter took the Devils all the way down to the six, but they could only muster a field goal.

His 72-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter put the game away for ASU and served as a reminder that the Devils need to find a way to get him the ball in space. So, despite managing just 14 total yards in the first half, Benjamin actually finished with 163 yards from scrimmage.

Despite his struggles, Daniels showed some impressive touch at times – most notably on a 68-yard scoring strike to Frank Darby down the right sideline in the third. Problem is, Brandon Aiyuk got called for a blindside hit on the play, negating the touchdown and trimming the catch to just a 45-yard gain.

It still set up a field goal to put the Devils up 9-0, but it was a costly, avoidable penalty.

“That’s just bad football,” Aiyuk later admitted. “The play was going away. I was just emotional and let it get to me, made a bad play and got his touchdown called back. That was a horrible feeling. Just a bad play. Bad football on my part.”

Ultimately, ASU did get the win. Daniels is 2-0 in his first two college games, and that’s still the bottom line here. Growing pains were to be expected from an extremely young team that is relying on a lot of freshmen and sophomores, but concerns about the offense heading into a showdown with Michigan State next Saturday are very real. And the fans at Sun Devil Stadium were pretty vocal about it at times.

“Yeah. I get it,” Edwards said, when asked about the offense hearing boos from the home crowd. “That’s why fans come. That’s what they do, they cheer and they boo. And when you’re not playing well, they boo. That’s nothing unusual. I played in Philadelphia. That’s nothing unusual. I mean, I get it. Fans are passionate, they’re emotional. They want to see offense, and when you struggle like that they get upset. But at the end, they were all clapping because we won. So I get that part too.”


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