TEMPE, Ariz. — It may not have been the total blowout some expected against a lower-division opponent, but Arizona State’s season opener Thursday played out pretty much according to script.
Despite some rust and a little sloppiness, the No. 19 Sun Devils routed Weber State 45-14, displaying the offense that should be in for a big season and getting a young defense some valuable experience.
"Our guys have been pretty good about these types of games, and at the end of the game we dominated a team we should dominate," ASU coach Todd Graham said.
ASU’s offensive stars shined brightly despite a slow start. After punting on its first offensive series and settling for a field goal on the next, the offense woke up and scored touchdowns on six of its next seven drives.
"I thought we came out just a little lackadaisical," junior running back D.J. Foster said. "We expect more on our drives than a punt and a field goal. That’s one thing we worked very hard on in this offseason. We need points. We need six points."
Added Graham: "We were maybe just a little bit rusty or off the mark early, but, heck, they did a great job."
The offense registered 570 total yards and averaged 6.8 yards per play. Not the 60-point effort it may have been capable of, but more than enough to win.
Foster, starting his first season as ASU’s featured back, had perhaps the best night of anyone, rushing for 147 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries. Redshirt junior receiver Jaelen Strong hauled in 10 catches for 146 yards. And third-year starting quarterback Taylor Kelly racked up 238 passing yards, completing 18 of 27 throws.
Kelly at times didn’t look particularly sharp. He admitted to a few overthrown passes, and he seemed to look too often to Strong, but he performed well enough to give ASU a 31-0 lead at halftime and spend the rest of the game on the sidelines.
"Obviously we won 45-14, but it should have been that at halftime, and they probably shouldn’t have scored on us," Graham said. "But it’s a win, (and) I think we got better as a football team."
Foster provided the offensive highlight, breaking off a career high 57-yard run early in the third quarter, avoiding a tackle and capping his night with a third touchdown before giving way to freshman running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, who combined for 60 yards.
Strong routinely caught passes with a defender all over him — something he’ll probably have to do often this season. His 146 yards were 22 shy of his career best mark, and he tallied double-digit receptions for the second time in his career.
"Jaelen had a tremendous game," Kelly said. "He’s a playmaker. He made a lot of big catches."
A few new offensive pieces had big moments as well. Redshirt junior Gary Chambers caught his first career pass for a touchdown in the first quarter. Backup quarterback Mike Bercovici, a redshirt junior, threw his first career touchdown pass to redshirt freshman receiver Ellis Jefferson, who registered his first career catch and touchdown.
D.J. Foster — In his first game in a lead back role, Foster didn’t disappoint. He’ll get more chances in coming games, and he’ll have to keep proving himself against tougher competition.
Salamo Fiso, LB — It was clear at times that Fiso is one of ASU’s two returners from last season’s defense. He led the team with seven tackles, a few of them critical ones, including a sack to help shut down Weber State on its first offensive series.
"There are lots of things we can improve upon," Graham said. "We do have a great offense. And 570 yards is not that bad, but it could have been a lot better, and it will be."
As he usually is, though, Graham was more keen to talk about his defense after the game. The first team held Weber State scoreless in the first half, an effort that included a goal-line stand on which former tight end Marcus Washington stuffed Weber State running back Zach Smith just short of the end zone.
"I loved that goal-line stand," Graham said. "That’s exactly what we needed tonight."
Graham said he and co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson made a conscious decision to throw the whole playbook at the inexperienced defense Thursday, taking advantage of the mismatch to help the young group progress as quickly as possible.
"We said, ‘We’ve got to get these guys ready to play,’" Graham said. "We can go out and play base defense tonight — and we could’ve, and we would’ve won anyway — but if you watched and you know anything about football, we ran a lot of exotic stuff tonight."
The defense apparently responded well to the test, though the results can only say so much considering the opponent. The second- and third-team defense, however, got sloppy in the second half, leading to the only two defensive breakdowns.
"From a defensive standpoint, I thought we had a good night," Graham said.
Ultimately, Graham came away pleased with his team’s opening performance despite sloppiness, rust or otherwise. ASU won a game it was supposed to in dominant fashion. Players, too, were satisfied but not content. There were things they can clean up, and with their first big test three weeks away — UCLA comes to Sun Devil Stadium on Sept. 25 — they have time to do it.
"It’s one of 15 — that’s what (players) were talking about," Graham said. "We’ve got a lot of work to do to get better."
— Kelly jumped two spots into fourth place on ASU’s career passing yards list. He passed Danny White in the first half for fifth, and after eclipsing 212 yards on the night he moved past Ryan Kealy. Kelly now has 6,943 yards, trailing Jake Plummer by 1,884 yards.
— ASU played seven true freshmen Thursday. Freshman linebacker D.J. Calhoun and defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood started. Running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, defensive backs Chad Adams and Armand Perry, and linebacker Christian Sam, played in reserve roles.