Potent ASU offense more than makes up for inexperienced defense

New Mexico's Clayton Mitchem (12) fumbles in front of ASU's Viliami Moeakiola during the first half Saturday in Albuquerque, N.M. The Sun Devils recovered the fumble.

Arizona State appeared well on its way to an easy win over New Mexico on Saturday, leading 22-0 late in the first quarter. Then, the Sun Devil defense started to show its youth.

"We panicked," ASU coach Todd Graham said in his postgame radio interview. "We had critical errors and things that we need to learn from, especially a young defense. We gave ’em three touchdowns. I mean, just absolutely gave it to ’em."

The Lobos came within eight points in the first half before ASU’s defense tightened up and its veteran offense carried the No. 17 Sun Devils to a 58-23 win, ASU’s first on the road against a non-conference opponent since 2006.

"I think we responded well tonight," Graham said. "I think we got better. We talked about the marked improvement we need to have. I really hope that I see that on film. I think that I will."

Graham coached his young defense with fervor in the week leading up to Saturday’s game, to prepare it for New Mexico’s triple-option offense, which requires extreme assignment soundness. With so many new starters, including three true freshmen, a few breakdowns seemed inevitable.

ASU 58, New Mexico 23

Those breakdowns all came in the first half and mostly on third down. Graham at halftime estimated ASU had committed seven critical errors on third down. On one touchdown drive, New Mexico rattled off runs of 24 and 25 yards.

"I sensed a lot of panic in them tonight, but then they settled down and shut ’em out in the second half," Graham said. "All we did at halftime was go back to our original game plan — do what you’re coached to do. That’s it."

After allowing 225 yards of offense in the first half, the defense allowed just 112 in the second half. On the night, the defense registered three takeaways, all on fumbles. It also tallied eight tackles for loss and held New Mexico to 5 of 14 on third-down conversions.

"I can tell there was a lot of learning that went on tonight," Graham said. "And obviously they were a difficult, pain-in-the-rear kind of offense. You see how disciplined you have to be to deal with that."

ASU’s offense did, as Graham put it, exactly what it should against a lower-tier team like New Mexico. It racked up 625 total yards, including 423 on the ground, and averaged 9.0 yards per play. Senior quarterback Taylor Kelly threw for 192 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown.

Junior running back D.J. Foster had another career night, rushing for 216 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries; he also caught three passes for 54 yards. Foster has run for 100 yards or more in four of ASU’s last five games.

"He’s a phenomenal back," Graham said. "He’s just a warrior. I’m really proud of him."

ASU returns to Tempe with the result it and pretty much everyone else expected, but it also returns with issues to work out before Pac-12 Conference play begins next week against Colorado. The Sun Devils have continued special teams issues, but they must also focus on further improving a young defense as the schedule gets tougher each week.

"We’ve got to get the young guys taught," Graham said. "But we got better tonight on defense."

Kalen Ballage is lifted into the air by an ASU offensive lineman after rushing for a touchdown in the first half.

The offense was sharper. ASU’s offense had a handful of shaky moments Saturday, but as a whole the offense looked much sharper than it did last week against New Mexico. Kelly spread the ball out more, made use of his legs and improvised better than he did last week. ASU also ran the ball with ease, utilizing nine rushers. It was obvious everything was clicking, and the offense labored less than it did in the season opener.

Special teams are still an issue. Sights seen on ASU’s special teams Saturday night: A shanked punt, a missed field goal and two blocked point-after attempts, one returned the length of the field for two points. ASU’s kickoff cover team was solid and Alex Garoutte’s kickoffs were much better, but that was about it. Graham was looking for improvement from special teams this week, and there wasn’t much to be seen. Inconsistency from kickers could prove problematic should it continue.

Defensive line pressure remains a work in progress. Of ASU’s eight tackles for loss Saturday, just two came from defensive linemen (Devil-backer Antonio Longino was also credited with half a TFL). The defensive line simply isn’t making a significant impact on the quarterback yet. Though defensive end Marcus Hardison was able to produce decent pressure Saturday, ASU isn’t getting the four-man pressure it wants.

D.J. Foster celebrates one of his touchdown runs with teammates Vi Teofilo (73) and Kody Kohl (83) during the second half.

D.J. Foster — Foster has now set new career highs in rushing yards in three straight games. His 216 yards Saturday made him the first ASU player to rush for 200 yards or more in a game since 2001.

Laiu Moeakiola — The spur linebacker had another strong game, finishing with nine tackles, including two for loss and half a sack. Graham also praised Moeakiola’s sideline leadership.

— ASU had not won a road game against a non-conference opponent since 2006, when it beat Colorado, which was then a member of the Big 12. Saturday also was the first time ASU won it’s first road game of the season since 2007.

— Kelly went over 7,000 passing yards in his career, and became the fourth quarterback in school history to do so.

— Senior safety Damarious Randall left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent left knee injury but appeared to be walking around the sidelines without issue.

— Sophomore receiver Cameron Smith’s 41-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter was the first of his career.

Follow Tyler Lockman on Twitter