TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — With the schedule about to get a whole lot tougher, the last thing Arizona State wanted in its opening game was to play poorly or, worse yet, lose to a lower-division opponent.
The Sun Devils put away any concern about a letdown by racing out to a big lead and coasting to the finish. Taylor Kelly threw for 300 yards and matched a career high with five touchdown passes before sitting out most of the second half, helping ASU open its second season under coach Todd Graham with a 55-0 rout over Sacramento State on Thursday night.
“We did just what we wanted to do,” Graham said. “It wasn’t real exciting in the second half, but it was a team we should have dominated and did.”
The Sun Devils opened with a 63-6 victory over Northern Arizona in 2012 and quickly took care of another FCS opponent to start this season, scoring on their first five possessions while building a 42-0 halftime lead.
Arizona State finished with 523 total yards, and Kelly spread it around before sitting down, hitting five different receivers for touchdowns.
Marion Grice picked up where he left off from his stellar first season in the desert, catching a touchdown pass, running for another score and finishing with 117 total yards in little over a half.
And, after a rough opening drive, Arizona State’s defense tightened down, finishing with its first shutout since a 42-0 win at Washington State in 2010.
Letdown? Yeah, right.
“We were really set to go out and beat this team,” said ASU tight end Chris Coyle, who caught Kelly’s third touchdown pass. “The only way we could have lost is if we went out and beat ourselves.”
Despite being one of two FCS teams to beat an FBS opponent in each of the previous two seasons, Sacramento State (0-2) never stood much of a chance against the bigger, faster Sun Devils. The Hornets, who lost 24-0 to San Jose State in their opener, had a good opening drive against Arizona State but did little else after that, finishing with 167 total yards, six first downs and three turnovers.
“We did struggle most of the night,” Sacramento State coach Marshall Sperbeck said. “And that’s an understatement.”
Arizona State got the Graham Era off to a solid start, winning eight games last season, including a blowout over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
The follow-up was filled with anticipation. The Sun Devils brought back many of their key players, including Kelly, All-America defensive tackle Will Sutton and loads of playmakers who have bought into Graham’s discipline-first ways.
Their task in the opener was to keep from looking past Sacramento State. After this game, Arizona State faces No. 21 Wisconsin at home next week, followed by games against No. 5 Stanford, No. 25 Southern Cal and No. 14 Notre Dame.
With the Hornets’ success at beating FBS schools — Oregon State in 2011, Colorado last season — and the eight wins by FCS schools in college football’s opening weekend, the Sun Devils needed to keep their focus on the present, not their future schedule.
Sacramento State showed some promise on its first drive, converting four straight third downs while holding the ball for 16 plays against Arizona State’s defense. All that work ended in no points, though, when ASU’s Robert Nelson raced around the right end and blocked Justin Weldon’s 33-yard field goal attempt.
“We missed a good opportunity there to start the game off on a good note and didn’t convert,” Sperbeck said.
The rout was on after that.
Kelly hit tight end De’Marieya Nelson on a 16-yard touchdown pass, then used a pump fake to free up Kevin Ozier for a 41-yard touchdown pass. Sutton recovered a fumble on the Hornets’ next play from scrimmage, setting up Grice for a 6-yard touchdown run.
And the scores kept coming.
Jaelen Strong outleaped Sacramento State defensive back Joshua Armstrong for a 24-yard touchdown catch from Kelly.
Kelly used a pump fake on the next drive to set up Coyle for a 33-yard TD over the middle.
ASU lost the ball on downs its next drive but turned an interception into Kelly’s fifth touchdown pass of the half, a 26-yarder to Grice out of the backfield.
The Sun Devils went into halftime with a 42-0 lead and 340 yards of offense, and at that point they’d held the Hornets without a first down since their initial drive.
Coming off a solid first season as Arizona State’s starter, Kelly had a dominant first game of his junior year, going 19 of 24 for 262 yards while matching his career high for touchdown passes by halftime. He played one series of the third quarter before sitting out the rest of the game.
“I had higher expectations for myself, and just going off our team’s ability last year, I had high expectations for our offense,” Kelly said. “We showed that tonight and need to keep rolling.”