Arizona State rallied from 10 points behind to upset No. 13 Michigan State 16-13 on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium, improving to 2-0 and re-gaining a national ranking (No. 25 Amway coaches poll/No. 23 Associated Press) for the first time since the 2015 preseason.
1. ASU leads the nation in rush defense. Let that stat marinate. It’s a small sample size but one that includes a Big Ten team whose offensive identity is built on the run game. Michigan State only gained 63 yards rushing so ASU’s two-game rush defense average is 32.5 yards, ironically a tick ahead of the Spartans (34.5) nationally. The Sun Devils finished No. 77 in 2017 rush defense (174.8 ypg). They’re vastly improved with a front seven that includes freshmen starting linebackers Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler and hybrid safety Jalen Harvey, who was a wide receiver last season. Harvey and Robertson combined for 19 tackles against Michigan State.
2. Coaching change bounce. ASU’s previous two coaching changes paid off immediately with improvement from 7-6 in 2006 to 10-3 (Pac-12 co-champion) in ’07 and 6-7 in 2011 to 8-5 in ’12. Something similar could be brewing under first-year coach Herm Edwards given that the offense is performing with returning talent and the unproven defense so far is better than projected. “I think these players trust me,” Edwards said. “When I ask them to do things, they don’t question it. But it took me six months to show them I’m this guy, that’s how I operate. I needed to earn that (trust). The more you win, the more they go, ‘OK, that’s what we’re doing.’ “
3. ASU can win with fewer than 30 points. The Sun Devils have managed that just three times in the last three seasons — 27-17 over Washington State in 2015, 23-20 over UCLA in ’16 and 13-7 over Washington in ’17. They were shut out in the first half by Michigan State and only had three through the third quarter, trailing by 10 points. But they had enough poise and confidence behind senior QB Manny Wilkins to dominate in the fourth including maintaining possession for the final 4:55. “This was an old-time pro football game,” Edwards said, the kind he likes. “This was a rock ’em, sock ’em game. It was comfortable for me. I’m used to being in games like this.”
ASU significantly improved in one area, running 77 total plays compared to 60 against UT San Antonio. The Sun Devils kept possession for 22 plays on second-half scoring drives of 70 and 69 yards, the latter ending with a game-winning field goal. “We’re still struggling putting drives together on offense,” Edwards said. But an argument can be made that the quick two-play, 65-yard strike for ASU’s only touchdown requiring only 27 seconds turned the game. … N’Keal Harry had another productive game (6 catches, 89 yards, 1 TD) but Kyle Williams led ASU in receiving (7 catches, 104 yards) and RB Eno Benjamin had twice as many receiving yards (54) as rushing (27). Benjamin turning a screen pass into a 25-yard gain on third-and-8 was the “difference at the end of the game,” Wilkins said. Williams had just a single catch against UTSA which was bound to increase based on his production last year (66 catches, 763 yards, 7 TDs) and heavy coverage on Harry. … ASU plunged from 266 yards rushing vs. UTSA to 44 on seven fewer carries, dropping from 7.4 yards per carry to 1.5. That’s a credit to Michigan State and partly due to ASU’s extensive use of four wide receivers in the second half but also an area that must be better going forward. The offensive line was missing RG Steve Miller for personal reasons, instead rotating Roy Hemsley and Cade Cote. Wilkins was sacked twice, but ASU is No. 30 nationally in sacks allowed compared to No. 120 in 2017.
Grade: B minus.
Just as Edwards expected, Michigan State pieced together multiple sustained drives although its success was more thanks to QB Brian Lewerke (314 yards passing) than its running backs. The Spartans had five consecutive first-half drives of 8-13 plays but only one field goal to show for it. ASU S Dasmond Tautalatasi’s interception in the end zone might have been a game saver because the Sun Devils were at risk of falling behind 10-0. “They couldn’t run the ball,” ASU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales said. “A little disappointed in our tackling. We made a lot of assignment mistakes, but they played their tails off. When you play hard, you can make up for some of those mistakes.” … Robertson and DL Darius Slade had consecutive sacks on what turned out to be Michigan State’s final offensive possession, ASU’s only sacks after nine last week. … The Spartans converted just 4-of-12 third downs but had drives that lasted 7:31 and 5:23 for 32:05 total time of possession. … LB Jay Jay Wilson played in the second half, his suspension spilling over to the first half, and did not make a significant impact.
ASU made some strides after a disappointing first game, eliminating penalties while in punt formation and allowing Michael Sleep-Dalton to excel particularly by placing four punts inside the 20-yard line. … Brandon Ruiz went 3-of-3 on field goals including a 49-yarder and the game winner from 28 as time expired. He also had touchbacks on all four of his kickoffs after going 6-of-8 in that category vs. UTSA. … Gonzales said a punt block by Tyler Johnson early in the fourth quarter might have been the “biggest play of the game” because of its effect on field position. … ASU’s return game still is a work in progress.
Miller was on the field in street clothes and could be back this week. RB Trelon Smith missed a second straight game due to coach’s decision, and he too might be cleared to play. … Robertson was named Walter Camp national defensive Player of the Week on Sunday. … Wilkins is No. 13 nationally in total offense and No. 15 in passing yards. Harry is No. 14 in receiving yards, and Sleep-Dalton No. 11 in punting.
No. 25 ASU goes on the road for the first time against San Diego State (1-1) at 7:30 p.m. at SDCCU Stadium. The Aztecs won 28-14 over Sacramento State on Saturday after a 31-10 opening loss to No. 9 Stanford.