TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said last week he did not want to see the same Taylor Kelly this season that he saw in 2012. He needed a new and improved version.
In ASU’s dominant 55-0 season-opening win over Sacramento State on Thursday night, Kelly showed all the signs of a quarterback that has taken the next step.
“He has a lot more mastery of what we’re doing,” Graham said. “He’s a heck of a quarterback, heck of a leader.
“No question in my mind he’s a lot better.”
Kelly’s performance certainly must be put in context: It came against lower-division Sacramento State, a far inferior opponent. Kelly almost certainly won’t throw for 300 yards and five touchdowns in two-and-a-half quarters of football again this season. He won’t have as much time to work against tougher defenses. He won’t have as many easy opportunities due to blown coverages.
Regardless, Kelly’s performance impressed in every way. He used all his weapons, he hit his targets, he didn’t put the ball in danger and he moved ASU’s offense efficiently. Save a couple slightly overthrown balls, it would be hard to find a flaw in Kelly’s game. On ASU’s first seven drives, six of them scoring drives, the offense racked up 317 yards on 33 plays.
“It’s just me being comfortable out there and trusting my eyes,” Kelly said.
Ultimately, Kelly showed everything you’d want to see out of a second-year quarterback on a team with high expectations, and he did it in a little more than a half. If he had remained in the game, he might have thrown 10 TD passes, and ASU might have topped 80.
There was no sign of regression and no sign of plateau. Kelly, who finished 23 for 31 with 300 yards and five touchdowns, looked like a quarterback who has taken a significant leap.
“It’s his confidence,” senior tight end Chris Coyle said. “It’s his second year in the system, and it’s a tough system to play in. … The biggest thing is he understands the playbook.”
Added Graham: “You can just see how much more comfortable he feels in the pocket and operating our system. And you could see tonight there are a lot more people to spread that ball around to.”
And spread the ball Kelly did. In the first half alone, Kelly completed passes to eight different receivers. His five touchdowns, which tied a career best, were all to different players, two of them newcomers.
“We had weapons all across the field,” Kelly said. “Those guys are great playmakers, and I trust what they see. They find great windows for me.”
Junior-college transfer Jaelen Strong looked like the real deal, catching a 24-yard touchdown passes in the second quarter against tight coverage. Fans should soon get used to hearing “Kelly to Strong,” as the pair hooked up six times Thursday.
Tight end De’Marieya Nelson, another junior-college transfer, got in on the action as well, catching a 16-yard pass from Kelly for ASU’s first touchdown of the season.
“We’ve more weapons now, so (Kelly) is comfortable with spreading the ball out,” Coyle said. “He’s going to make it so defenses can’t key on anyone of us, and he did a great job of spreading it out tonight.”
With Kelly leading the way, the Sun Devils took care of business in a game Graham expected them to dominate. The offense flourished and the defense overcame a sluggish first drive to give ASU its first shutout since 2010 and third overall since 1996.
With eight FCS teams upsetting FBS opponents last weekend, ASU was wary of Sacramento State, a team that had beaten Pac-12 opponents the past two seasons, but Thursday’s game was every bit the decimation expected of such a match-up.
“We weren’t going to take them for granted,” Coyle said. “All the summer training, all the work we put in through camp — we were really set to go out and beat this team. The only way we could have lost was if we beat ourselves.”
With just one penalty (delay of game) and no turnovers, ASU certainly didn’t beat itself. It did everything it needed to do in a warmup game before the schedule really gets tough. Graham only took issue with the Sun Devils’ sluggish start, and Norvell only begrudged taking ASU’s starters out in the third quarter, wanting more time to work on the offense.
“I don’t think I could have had it go any better than it did,” Graham said. “I was proud of our guys.”
It could not have gone much better for Kelly, either. At this time a year ago, there was rampant concern over the quarterback position. Kelly was an inexperienced signal caller who had gone from third on the depth chart to starter, and many wondered if he would last the season in that role.
Kelly proved those concerns unmerited. Now, he’s putting even more distance between himself and his backups. It may be one game and it may have come against a cupcake opponent, but Kelly’s performance should inspire confidence that he will be able to deliver on lofty expectations.
“I had higher expectations of myself than I did last year,” Kelly said. “I had high expectations of our offense, and we showed that tonight. We’ve just got to keep rolling and handle success well.”