Arizona State Football: 5 Biggest Early Season Storylines for the Sun Devils
Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium earned its nickname the "House of Heat" on Thursday night. Although the sun had set in the desert, the game time temperature hovered around Hades norms—107 degrees.
Roughly 55,743 were on hand to witness the Sun Devils' season opener and most likely shed some pounds in the outdoor sauna. After a shaky start, the Devils settled into a scoring groove that included five consecutive trips to the end zone and six total touchdowns in the eight first-half drives.
Redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly had a monster first half, completing 19-of-24 for 256 yards and five touchdowns and zero interceptions. Kelly played the opening drive of the second half and finished the game 23-of-31 for 300 yards before giving way to backups Mike Bercovici and Michael Eubank.
The Sun Devils' schedule takes a marked uptick in the coming weeks, welcoming the defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin Badgers (2-0) to Tempe this weekend. The Badgers are currently ranked No. 18 in the USA Today Coaches' Poll and No. 18 in the AP Poll on the heels of two consecutive home shutouts over Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech.
The first road game of the season for Arizona State will be at the home of the defending Pac-12 champion Stanford Cardinal (1-0). The Cardinal, like Arizona State, had an early Week 1 bye and had no problem dispatching the San Jose State Spartans. The Cardinal are currently ranked No. 4 in the USA Today Coaches' Poll and No. 5 in the AP Poll.
The following two weeks welcome conference foe USC (1-1) and No. 21 Notre Dame (1-1) at Texas Stadium. Both teams are reeling after embarrassing losses on Saturday. Let's take a closer look at the early season storylines for the Sun Devils.
Will the Defense Struggle Against FBS Teams?
The opening drive for the Sacramento State Hornets started at their own 25 yard line and quarterback Garrett Safron engineered an impressive 16-play, 59-yard drive, including four first downs and completions of 15 and 11 yards. After driving to the Arizona State 26, Safron's lone touchdown attempt was knocked down by Alden Darby in the end zone. The Hornets then attempted a 33-yard field goal which Robert Nelson ceremoniously blocked.
Sacramento State would only enter Arizona State territory once more in the game and redshirt senior Grandville Taylor took offense to that, intercepting Safron and returning the ball 67 yards to the 2-yard line.
One of the biggest concerns coming into this season for Arizona State was stopping the run, and we saw the Devils' weak side or WILL linebacker, Chris Young, need help off the field and never returned. If they hope to improve their abysmal run defense, senior linebacker Chris Young will be the key.
I'm chalking the horrible opening drive up to nerves. Afterwards, the defense only surrendered two first downs and 108 total yards for the remainder of the game.
The upcoming game against Wisconsin will tell volumes about the state of the defense, so stay tuned.
Which Wide Receiver Will Step Up for the Sun Devils?
It was a refreshing change to see that a wide receiver, not a running back or tight end, led the team in receiving. Granted, running back Deantre Lewis had a beautiful 57-yard reception and three of Taylor Kelly's five touchdowns were to non-receivers, but Thursday night was a coming out party for redshirt sophomore and transfer student Jaelen Strong.
Strong led all receivers with six receptions for 58 yards and one touchdown. While 58 yards doesn't really stand out as an amazing number, consider the fact that Kelly spread out his passes to eleven different targets.
In a lineup with several returning players, Strong receiving 26 percent of the passes was a big vote of confidence. Look for plenty more from Jaelen Strong in the future.
Will D.J. Foster or Deantre Lewis Backup Marion Grice?
Redshirt junior Deantre Lewis is back in the backfield for the Sun Devils. After a phenomenal freshman season, Lewis was sidelined the following year recovering from a gunshot wound. In 2012, he was converted to a defensive back due to a crowded backfield.
After moving back to the offense, Lewis made a big impact out of the backfield. He finished the game with eight rushes for 53 yards including a 13-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. Lewis also caught two passes out of the backfield for 52 yards.
Sophomore D.J. Foster only saw one carry for five yards and four receptions for 29 yards and was kept out of the end zone. It was a bit odd to see Foster have only one carry all game so we will definitely keep an eye on him in future matchups.
Is Zane Gonzalez the Real Deal?
To say that the Arizona State's kicking game was iffy at best was a compliment. The Depth Chart coming into the season listed Alex Garoutte as the kicker for kickoffs and PATs. However, after the first touchdown, it was true freshman Zane Gonzalez who trotted out for the extra point, not Garoutte. Gonzalez was a perfect 7-of-7 on PATs and completed his first field goal attempt from 40 yards out.
All was right again with the kicking game as Garoutte booted 10 kickoffs for 649 yards with nine touchbacks.
Then came the fourth quarter.
Gonzalez missed his second field goal attempt wide right from only 33 yards out. He would finish the game 2-of-4 hitting from 29 and missing from 49. Was it first game jitters for Gonzalez? Can he recover moving forward or we see Jon Mora again this year?
Will Taylor Kelly Top His Breakout Sophomore Season?
Going into the spring and fall practices in 2012, a pair of junior quarterbacks were battling for the starting spot in Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank.
Kelly won out and put on a clinic setting the school record for most consecutive completions in a game with 18 against Washington State on November 17. He finished second in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency with 159.88, besting Rudy Carpenter's previous school record of 145.09. His completion percentage of 67.1 percent is also a school record, while his 29 passing touchdowns last season earned him second place in the record books behind Andrew Walter's 30.
If Thursday night's game was any clue of what he can do in the future, not only will Kelly be the best quarterback in school history, but also one of the best in the country. If only the Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Pac-12 defense are as porous as Sacramento State.
Doubtful, but hopeful.
David is the Featured Columnist of Arizona State Athletics for B/R. Follow him on Twitter at @asudave.