ASUDevils - Third Quarter explosion powers Sun Devils past Kent State
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Third Quarter explosion powers Sun Devils past Kent State

WR Brandon Aiyuk during his 77-yard touchdown reception
WR Brandon Aiyuk during his 77-yard touchdown reception

Usually a plethora of uncertainty with a multitude of questions always hang over the season’s opening game, in spite of the excitement around the return of football. Before tonight’s game even started, we found out not only would ASU be starting a true freshman at quarterback for the first time in program history, with Jayden Daniels, but he would be taking snaps from a true freshman center in Dohnovan West.

Nevertheless, the Sun Devils dominated the Kent State Flashes on both sides of the ball, powered by a 17-point 3rd quarter in which the defense also held them scoreless, going on to win 30-7.

“I thought the 3rd quarter for us was important because that was a quarter that last year, we really didn’t do a lot for some reason,” coach Herm Edwards said. “We talked about it at halftime, and we knew we needed to come out in the third quarter and run the football and score, and we were able to do that, and I thought that got us some momentum back.”

As many expected, ASU’s offense showed signs of first-game jitters in the first half. Their yardage was similar in the first and second halves, actually better in the first with 251 total yards to 204, respectively, and averaging 6.6 yards per play in the first to 6.4 in the second.

Of course, the fact that ASU’s last two drives of the game were a garbage drive and victory formation, plus receiver Brandon Aiyuk adding an extra 15-20 yards after the catch on the last play of the first half, should be taken into consideration.

Ultimately, the Sun Devils ended up committing five of their six penalties on the game in the first half, allowing three of their five sacks, and their lone turnover when Eno Benjamin coughed up the ball just inside the Kent State 30 after running for a 10-yard first down.

“Sloppy football game for us,” Edwards commented. “A lot of fouls in the first half, turned the ball over, couldn’t really run it, for the most part, they did a nice job of really stacking the box.”

Seven of Benjamin’s 11 runs in the first half were three yards or fewer, which doesn’t include his fumble run. However, he accounted for the only touchdown from either side in the first 30 minutes- after which ASU led 10-0- by catching an eight-yard pass from Jayden Daniels, tallying two catches for 22 yards and the touchdown in the opening half.

“I was going through my reads, so I was looking at the little slip play to the over,” Daniels commented, “and then I happened to just cut back and I saw Eno going right there so I just threw the ball and he scored.”

ASU had the chance to score again at the end of the first half on the aforementioned play to Aiyuk. It would’ve been in the 40-50-yard range, far from a guarantee, but redshirt sophomore Cristian Zendejas impressed for the Sun Devils in his first collegiate action, making 3 PAT’s and all three field goals, each in the 31-40-yard range with a long of 40. He stepped in for an inactive Brandon Ruiz, who has a stomach/abdominal muscle issue according to inside sources.

“Zendejas does a great job of kicking,” Edwards said. “We found that out last night, so then I’m thinking ‘well, how far can the guy kick a field goal?’”

But even if the Sun Devils had gone into the locker room with 13, they still would’ve outscored their first-half total in the third quarter alone. Coming off a strong finish to the first half, in which Daniels essentially was able to lead ASU into field goal range from its own 35 in less than 100 seconds- all while using 0 timeouts (other than the one that would’ve been necessary to use had Aiyuk gone down to kick the field goal)- he didn’t miss a beat to start the second.

“What I like about the guy, he’s got composure,” Edwards noted about Daniels. “He never panicked, just came over with a smile on his face and just kept playing.”

It’d be bending the truth to say the freshman quarterback truly led the Sun Devils on their nine play, 70-yard touchdown drive to open the second half. But he did throw a couple of 10-yard passes to Benjamin and then Kyle Williams to get the first first-down of the drive (after starting with a delay of game penalty, the only ASU penalty in the second half).

Six running plays later, which was split evenly between Benjamin- 28 yards- and junior Isaiah Floyd- 26 yards- the Sun Devils found themselves at the one yard-line, which set up another milestone in Daniels’ career.

It was only a yard, but he fooled the entire defense on the fake handoff, which made for a cool-looking first career rushing touchdown, if nothing else.

Edwards made it clear that Daniels is not a running quarterback, however, despite the perception of him as a dual-threat quarterback.

“I kept telling him ‘when you run, just know when your journey’s over,’” Edwards said. “’We didn’t recruit you to run, we got a runner, you just slide,’ and he did a nice job of sliding, so he extended a couple plays very nicely.”

Earlier in the week, Daniels shared a text he received from ASU’s former quarterback, now a backup for the Packers, Manny Wilkins, and relayed that Wilkins essentially told him to just get the ball to the playmakers and let them make plays. There was no better example than Aiyuk’s 77-yard catch and run for a touchdown late in the third, without a doubt the play of the night.

“They are basically a 50-front team, but they were running a four-two front cover-one challenging us and we were having a hard time protecting,” offensive coordinator Rob Likens explained. “So I knew that if we could get a screen off and just get one or two blocks off we could be gone and that’s what Brandon (Aiyuk) did. (Daniels) did a great job finding a throwing lane on that particular throw, under duress. Got a different arm slot and found my man Brandon. I’m just glad the hawk didn’t come out tonight to catch him. From upstairs in the booth, he (looked) close man, I’m glad he put those afterburners on.”

Daniels finished the night 15-for-24 passing, throwing for 284 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for 37 yards (not counting sacks) plus a touchdown. Most importantly, he was smart with the football.

“To score 30 points, I’m kind of pleased with that, but I need to watch the film before I say too much,” Likens said. “But I am very pleased with what (Jayden Daniels) did. He had pressure, he did not have any foolish turnovers, I thought he did very well securing the football and sliding when he had to slide and sometimes taking a sack you just take that sack. He threw a couple of them away (which) we had to (do), and he did a great job.”

Leading 27-0 going into the fourth quarter, ASU could play comfortably for the final frame. As the score suggests, that had as much to do with the offense as it did the defense.

The Sun Devils only allowed two plays of double-digit yardage in the first half, and a total of 81 yards and four first downs, not to mention -1 passing yards.

Like the offense, they played a dominant third quarter, highlighted by the strip sack by senior linebacker Khaylan Kearse-Thomas, which was recovered by senior defensive lineman George Lea. It got the Sun Devils three points, even though the offense went three-and-out on the drive that started at the Kent State 18- their only real shortcoming of the third quarter.

“The defense did a fabulous job,” Edwards said of the unit. “Special teams did a good job flipping the field. The defense, with those sudden changes where they held them to field goals, are big-time wins. You need to seize those opportunities and the offense needs to take advantage of those opportunities.”

ASU allowed exactly 200 yards, accruing three sacks, eight tackles-for-loss, six passes defended and forced two turnovers, both via fumble. They allowed 3.1 yards per play on the night.

You just saw that first turnover, but the second one actually leads us to one of the most pleasant surprises of the night on that side of the ball: cornerback Jack Jones.

We had little idea how much he’d play tonight, but it turns out he saw his fair share of action. The first drive he was put in the game- the third drive of the night for Kent State’s offense- he made a quick-reaction pass deflection on scrambling Golden Flashes quarterback Woody Barrett. On the same drive, Jones forced a fumble that was recovered by sophomore safety Cam Phillips on a 15-yard run by Kent State running back Jo-El Shaw (one of Kent State’s two aforementioned plays of double-digit yardage in the half). This set up ASU at the Kent State 34 and ended up leading to the game’s first touchdown.

On the night, sophomore linebacker Darien Butler led the team with seven total tackles, sophomore linebacker Merlin Robertson led the way with six solo tackles and added a forced fumble, and Kearse-Thomas led the way with 3.5 tackles-for-loss. Other notable performances included senior cornerback Kobe Williams, who got three tackles, one for loss, two passes defended and a forced fumble, as well as sophomore defensive end Jermayne Lole- four tackles and half a sack- sophomore linebacker Tyler Johnson- three tackles, one for loss, junior Tillman safety Evan Fields- 6 tackles, one for loss- and Phillips, who had five tackles and a pass defended.

It’s worth noting that ASU played their starters for the duration of the game on both sides of the ball, although they rotated in several players throughout the night and ended up playing 14 true freshmen and 11 redshirt freshmen.

“They needed to get in condition because they haven’t played a football game, that’s the difference between college football in the preseason and the NFL,” Edwards explained. “They’re not in football condition. We were very strategic in what we were trying to do, we got a pretty good rotation going, especially defensively, there’s going to be 18 guys we probably play.

“Offense is a little different, Eno I wanted to make sure he got 100 yards, that was important…we only have so many guys on offense, we only have three running backs, so Eno needed to get 100 yards, and I told him on the last drive this is it, you either get it or I’m pulling you out…he cramped up a a little bit, he wanted to go back (in the game), that’s the kind of kid he is, he’ll be ok.”

Benjamin just got there, finishing with 102 rushing yards and 32 yards receiving. Aiyuk was the top receiver with 140 yards on the night.

One more thing worth a mention, since Zendejas has already been brought up, is sophomore punter Michael Turk. It seemed on almost every single punt the Kent State returner would have to pedal backwards several yards from the spot they initially were standing.

“(Turk) was fabulous, he was fabulous,” Edwards said. “He gave us field position and that’s what you want, playing in a game like that, you need field position, and he made some nice punts, got us out of harm’s way.

“We knew about this kid, he was a good get for us, he was important because he can change the game. You saw the first one he hit, even the fans were going ‘ooooooh,’ and the last one he hit, he miss-hit it and he runs up and he said ‘coach, I missed it,’ and I said ‘that’s really good though,’ because it hit the ground and it bounced it got the ball on the five, it was like a 70-yard punt or something like that, but he can punt a football, it’s fun to have a guy like that because you can make people play on long fields.”

Arizona State returns to action on Friday, September 6 at 7 p.m. when they host FCS opponent Sacramento State, part of the Big Sky Conference. The game will be aired on Pac-12 Network.

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