Punishing first quarter propels Sun Devils

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Putting the petal to the metal early, Arizona State accelerated to its best first quarter in more than a decade never let up until Colorado's will had.
"That's who we are," head coach Todd Graham said Thursday, foreshadowing his team's deconstruction of lowly Colorado two days later at Sun Devil Stadium. "I kind of feel like our team has to have one personality and it needs to be aggressive."
A stark contrast to slower starts against Stanford and Notre Dame, the Sun Devils made a point to play aggressively and get on the board early.
Against Stanford, ASU was shut out in the first half, going into halftime down 29 points. In the first quarter of that game, following a missed field goal by Stanford early, junior quarterback Taylor Kelly had three straight completions until his fourth pass was intercepted by senior defensive end Josh Mauro at the ASU 42 yard-line.
After a three play, 17-yard touchdown drive by Stanford with 9:08 left in the first quarter, ASU had another opportunity to get in scoring position, but again failed to convert on a third down and had to punt it away.
Three touchdowns and one safety later by Stanford and one missed field goal and five punts by the Sun Devils, halftime arrived with multiple areas of concern on both sides of the ball for ASU in an eventual one-sided loss.
Against Notre Dame, ASU was shut out in the first quarter, and its first two trips to the red zone in the second quarter only resulted in two field goals by freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez.
The key play in the first quarter of the Notre Dame game was the third and 12 at the Notre Dame 19-yard line with 13:44 left in the quarter. ASU had a chance early to force a three and out on the first series, but failed to do so.
The conversion by Notre Dame allowed the Fighting Irish to take control of the clock and tempo early on, making it hard for the Sun Devils to gain any momentum and get a rhythm going.
Under Graham, when the Sun Devils are leading in the first quarter, they are 11-1 and when they are tied or losing they're 1-6, so it's clearly crucial for ASU to get off to a strong start.
"We've got to be more aggressive," Graham said this week, "and I'm talking about from a coaching standpoint."
Saturday, the Sun Devils struck quickly with a five play, 84-yard drive in the span of 1:32 minutes to start the first quarter.
The 69-yard touchdown reception by sophomore receiver Jaelen Strong was his longest catch of the game in a three-catch, 109 yards effort, his fifth straight 100-plus yard gain. Strong now has 678 receiving yards on the season.
After a three and out by Colorado, ASU started in prime field position at the Colorado 37-yard line and established its run game. Senior running back Marion Grice rushed for 37 yards and scored on a second and goal on the 8-yard line with 10:26 left in the first quarter.
A successful 2-point conversion attempt gave ASU a 15-0 lead very early and the rout was clearly on.
After another three and out by Colorado, the Sun Devils drove from their own 40-yard line into the red zone and Gonzalez made a 26-yard field goal with 6:27 left in the first quarter.
In the ensuing Colorado series, junior cornerback Lloyd Carrington had an interception that set up another Grice touchdown run with 4:45 left in the quarter making the score 25-0 at the end of the first.
By halftime, Grice had 13 carries for 92 yards and two touchdowns, showing off the run game that ASU had hoped to establish.
In the first half, the Sun Devils ran 46 plays and only seven came on third downs, a clear emblem of the efficiency of their offensive effort.
ASU had its most first quarter points since it led Stanford 28-13 after the first quarter on Sept. 28, 2002, a span of 139 games.
To complement the aggressive offensive attack of ASU, the Sun Devils also brought the pressure on defense, blitzing five or six players at a time on many if not most first half snaps.
"I just think that as we get into conference play and the style of teams we've been playing has been different," Graham said. "Been predominately run team you know, we're going to run the football this week too. I wanted to get them going tonight so we brought it from just about everywhere early just because I wanted to get those guys moving and flying around but (junior defensive back) Damarious Randall has really matured and showed some really good signs. With our 1-defense, (star Colorado receiver Paul) Richardson didn't have a catch."
Senior linebacker Chris Young had seven tackles with two tackles for loss in the first quarter alone in addition to a sack and senior linebacker Carl Bradford also had a sack in the first quarter along with a tackle for a loss.
ASU's defense held Colorado to a mere 54 yards in the first quarter and by halftime, Colorado only had 85 yards. Rees was intercepted two times, once by Carrington and then again by Randall.
This season alone, ASU has shut out four of its six opponents in the first quarter and is now 10-0 when shutting out an opponent in the first quarter. By outscoring Colorado 25-0 in the first quarter, ASU now has outscored opponents 194-89 in the first quarter under Graham.