Sun Devils’ new era off to picture perfect start

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Todd Graham era at Arizona State

could not have gotten off to much better of a start than it did Thursday.

ASU blew out Northern Arizona 63-6, firing on all cylinders and displaying a

discipline not seen at Sun Devil Stadium in any recent season.

“I was really anxious to see, when we’re standing on the sideline, just

exactly how they would respond,” Graham said. “Obviously there’s

going to be corrections and things, but I couldn’t have scripted a better

opening night.”

Granted, NAU is an FCS opponent and lost its starting running back and

quarterback to injuries during the game, but as first impressions go ASU could

have done little more to showcase exactly the kind of football Graham intends

it to play.

Perhaps the most anticipated showing was that of ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly.

The redshirt sophomore performed just as advertised — smart decisions, ball

protection and good mobility — and then some, lofting a few long passes down

field.

Kelly, who took 38 snaps to redshirt freshman Michael Eubank’s 29, finished the

night 15 of 19 for 247 yards and a touchdown. Aside from a sack and a couple

overthrown passes, Kelly did everything he could have to validate Graham’s

choosing him as the Sun Devils’ starting quarterback.

“He did exactly what I thought he would do,” Graham said. “I

knew Taylor would manage the game. (He) pulled the ball down and ran when he

needed to.”

Added Kelly: “I was nervous, but once that first snap hit it was just

another game of football.”

Eubank did all the right things, too, giving ASU the short-yardage signal

caller it sought to compliment Kelly. Eubank threw just one pass, for two

yards, but ran seven times for 36 yards and a touchdown.

And that “High Octane” offense Graham advertised all offseason? In 71

plays, it produced more points than ASU has scored in a game since its 2005

season opener, a 63-16 win over Temple. ASU outgained NAU 554-237 and went a

perfect 8 for 8 in the red zone. The 305 rushing yards complied by seven ball

carriers was the most in a game since Oct. 20, 2001.

All the particulars promised on offense were there, too. Senior running back

Cameron Marshall scored twice. Freshman running back D.J. Foster scored once

and gained 67 yards, flashing the potential touted when he chose ASU over USC

and Cal.

But as good as the offense was, it was not perfect. Both Marshall and Foster

fumbled. Senior wide receiver Jamal Miles was suspended for a team rules

violation dating back to the spring. And apparently seven of eight scoring

drives under three minutes was not quite high octane enough for Graham.

“Believe it or not that tempo was excruciatingly slow tonight,”

Graham said. “We’ve got to get faster with our tempo.”

The defense, too, was just as aggressive and exciting as it was talked up to be

by players and coaches all fall. Though shutting NAU out in the first half may

have been the defense’s most impressive feat, its three interceptions and two

sacks were the kind of big plays co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph

predicted. Senior linebacker Brandon Magee provided the highlight with a

45-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Though the explosive, sound defense may have been a surprise to a crowd used to

mistakes and mental lapses, it was, again, exactly what the Sun Devils

expected.

“I knew what we were going to do out there,” junior safety Alden

Darby said. “The style of defense coach Graham is having us play, an

attacking style, I knew we were going to bring it to them.”

Added Magee: “As a defense, we had a lot of plays we did very well, but we

also had some minor mistakes that we have to correct. (Against) Illinois we

can’t make those mistakes because Illinois is a lot better ball team.”

Amid a jubilant postgame full of laughter and praise, Magee’s comment brought

the game back into context. It won’t be like this every week. The opponents

will get better, starting with Illinois next week, and the pressure will be

greater. But with a strong first impression and sharp play all around, ASU was

able to build momentum for the tougher times.

Regardless of opponent, the greatest impression ASU made Thursday was

undoubtedly its discipline. The difference from past seasons was striking, and

the Sun Devils committed just four penalties for 30 yards. None of the

penalties came on defense.

Graham likely experienced in his first game what Dennis Erickson, ASU’s coach

the last five seasons, probably never did during his tenure: An official

approached Graham late in the game to compliment his team’s sportsmanship and

discipline.

“The (official) came over to me and said ‘Coach, I just want to tell you

you’re guys are absolutely incredible,'” Graham said. “That meant as

much to me as the win did.”