Arizona State may have called for a Maroon Monsoon Saturday night but the first half felt more like the perfect storm as ASU seemingly controlled every facet of the game, running away from Illinois early while improving to 2-0 on the season.
Offensively the Sun Devils were crisp, led by the steady play of both Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank at quarterback as the two combined to complete 23-29 passes for 318 yards and 3 passing touchdowns. The two players also combined to add 82 yards on the ground on just 12 carries, pacing the offense.
The Sun Devils have started the 2012 season as the high octane offensive machine that Coach Todd Graham advertised since he arrived on campus, averaging just over fifty points per game as an offense and have dominated the opposition in their first two games. On Saturday the team totaled 510 yards of offense, spreading the wealth amongst their playmakers and gassing the Illini.
"We put numbers up in the spring and the summer," Kelly said concerning his expected success of the ASU offense so far this season. "We have an attack offense and it is very dangerous and hard to stop. As long as we kept getting our run game going our passing game would start opening up."
Eubank, who attempted one pass in the opener against Northern Arizona last Thursday, completed all five of his passes, two of them for scores, and also ran for a touchdown in the game's closing minutes. Despite coming in on just a limited basis through the team's first two games, the redshirt freshman remains poised and content with his role in the offense.
"I'm just happy to be able to play with my brothers," Eubank noted. "I'm blessed to have the ability to step on the field. Every game I have a chance to get in; I have my own packages. I'm just counting my blessings. Last year I wasn't able to play and I was watching. This year I'm able to contribute to the team and I'm very happy about it."
The Sun Devils got out to a quick start on Saturday, posting 28 first half points as Kelly commanded the ASU offense through the air, completing his first 12 passes. The primary target for both Kelly and Eubank on the evening was Chris Coyle, who hauled in 10 catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs.
"It was a great night tonight," said Coyle. "I just tried to catch everything they threw my way. Both of these guys (Kelly and Eubank) had a lot of passes to me. I just tried to make as many plays as possible for the Sun Devils and I was happy to get in the end zone a couple of times. It was just a really good night for me."
Coyle's big play receiving ability has been an unexpected surprise for the Sun Devils through their first two games. Following a long line of recent successful tight ends at ASU, Coyle seems to be filling in nicely, providing the team with another valuable receiving option.
"He’s a very versatile tight-end," said Eubank of Coyle. "He’s very good to have, especially with this offense. It’s a lot of run-and-gun, very fast and spread out. It’s definitely good to have a good hybrid tight-end with us. He does a lot of great things for us."
"It’s a new offense," Coyle explained. "We just learned everything over this past offseason. It’s just been really great so far how we’ve been able to take that, put it on the field, and be so effective with that."
Coyle's emergence has been unexpected to say the least so far for the Sun Devils. Last season he found himself buried on the depth chart behind a number of upperclassmen before suffering a shoulder injury in the spring that kept him out of most offseason workouts.
Now fully healed and with a new perspective on his role on the team, Coyle is eager to prove himself on the field.
"Last year was really a test of my patience," Coyle admitted. "I prayed about it a lot. I know that everything happens for a reason and I had more than a couple people tell me to just have patience and wait it out. Sitting around I was learning from GRob (Gerell Robinson) and Trevor Kohl. I just watched the things they would do in their positions.
"Looking back on it, I think it was a perfect situation because I was able to learn from some great athletes."
Despite all the gaudy offensive stats the Sun Devils have put up in their first two games, the number that strikes out the most is the low number of penalties they've committed. After only committing four infractions against the Lumberjacks, ASU was flagged just once against Illinois for an intentional delay of game in the first half. No longer getting the way of their own success, the Sun Devils are now looking to reach their full potential.
"Being under Coach Graham has definitely taught us a lot about ourselves, being men, and being football players," said Eubank. "We’re able to take what we learned and use it off the field. That’s why we’re so determined not to get any penalties. Not getting any penalties is just as important as owning the ball for us. We want to make sure we do that every game.
"I think the reason why we're doing so well so far is because the coaches have expected perfection out of us every day at practice. They don't settle for anything less. Any mental errors that we make, or anything like that, they make sure we understand what we did and get it corrected by the next practice. So I'm not really surprised that we've been doing so well so far because we really prepare each week."
The Sun Devils will now look to prepare for the first road game of the season as the team travels to Columbia to take on the Missouri Tigers next Saturday. Road games have not been kind to the Sun Devils in recent years, and traveling to SEC country to take on a Missouri team who will be looking to atone for last season's defeat in Tempe won't make it any easier.
Yet, the Sun Devils remain optimistic about their fast start and know there's still plenty of room to improve.
"We have to come out like it is a 0-0 season," said Kelly. "We have to come out to every game and come away with a victory every week and prepare throughout that week. We have to improve every week. We left a lot of points out there due to turnovers or mental errors so we have to continue to gradually improve every week."
The Sun Devils were left wondering all week about who the starting quarterback for the Ilini would be on Saturday due to the sprained ankle Nathan Scheelhaase suffered in the team's season opening win against Western Michigan last weekend. Despite that though, Keelan Johnson says the team fully prepared for Illinois as they focused on other aspects of the Illini offense instead of game planning for a specific quarterback.
"Really it didn't matter which quarterback started," Johnson said. "Our whole preparation this week was focusing on their strengths and knowing what we needed to take away and honestly, we didn't really focus on the quarterback during the week."
Johnson, who paced ASU with 7.5 tackles on the night including one for a loss, has quickly become one of the Sun Devil standouts on defense this season, growing into his role as starting safety.
"This year, I’m able to get into a routine," Johnson commented. "I’m able to get into a flow and play my position. I’m not stressing about making mistakes and just going out there and using the athleticism. I’m able to communicate my other secondary and not worry about giving up big plays."
Another playmaker for the Sun Devils defensively on Saturday was linebacker Carl Bradford, who after a sluggish start last week against NAU, rebounded to contribute 5 tackles and 2.5 sacks against the Illini. With the Devils being without senior Brandon Magee (ankle), the play of Bradford was even more critical.
"I think it was just first game jitters," said Bradford. "I wasn’t very confident in myself, but I had a good week of practice so I just wanted to come out and prove that that position is an attack position, a ‘go-get-it’ position to play. I just tried to show myself today."