TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State did what it was supposed in its opener, knocking off a team from a smaller conference at home.
It was far from perfect.
The Sun Devils beat New Mexico State 37-31, but had trouble protecting quarterback Manny Wilkins, showed their lack of defensive depth may be worse than expected and gave up too many big plays late.
Arizona State faces a bigger challenge against San Diego State on Saturday, so there’s plenty to work on this week.
“Lots of good things, but lots of things to get better,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said Monday at his weekly news conference. “The key is to be markedly better in week 2.”
The Sun Devils got off to a good start against New Mexico State offensively, went into a second-quarter lull, then overpowered the Aggies in a stellar third quarter to pull away.
Wilkins was sharp after an injury-plagued 2016 season, beating the Aggies with his arm and his legs. He threw for 300 and two touchdowns, and avoided some of the big hits he took last season.
Wilkins also was accurate downfield — something the Sun Devils lacked last season — connecting on TD passes of 60 and 53 yards.
“We need more of that,” Graham said.
The Sun Devils ran the ball well despite losing Demario Richard in the first half to a right leg injury. Kalen Ballage carried the load with his running mate out, scoring two touchdowns while running for 79 yards.
But Arizona State had trouble protecting Wilkins at times and there were occasions where he held the ball too long.
Arizona State’s defense was good early, but a lack of depth led the coaches to play the starters the entire first half and stuck mostly with 11 players until the game was out of reach.
“We’re going to rotate and play people, but part of that is we want to have a mindset of how we play as well,” Graham said. “It’s not that we don’t in anybody or anything like that. Coach (defensive coordinator Phil Bennett) wanted to make a statement with his guys and that’s what he did. What’s impressive is that I didn’t see a lot of fatigue.”
When Arizona State did start substituting, New Mexico State took advantage.
The Sun Devils have had trouble giving up big plays the past couple of seasons and the Aggies were able to reel a few off late in the game, scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter. New Mexico State’s Jason Huntley had one of those long plays, taking off on a 50-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
“Until you get out there the first time, you don’t know how you’re going to be,” Graham said. “We fit and did some nice things. I thought we dominated the line of scrimmage. We had some mistakes, some mental mistakes and they had that long run late.”
Arizona State’s run defense should get a good test this week against San Diego State.
The Aztecs are tailback-driven on offense, led by powerful senior Rashaad Penny. At 5-foot-11, he’s a load to bring down and ran for 197 with two touchdowns in a win over UC Davis last week.
San Diego ran for 276 yards as a team and quarterback Christian Chapman threw for 220 yards and a pair of scores in the 38-17 victory.
“They’re multiple tight ends, old-school, really,” Graham said. “Almost a blend of Stanford and what Boise’s done in the past. They’re going to ground and pound, play-action pass. Obviously, a big-time challenge for us.”