For Taylor Kelly and the Sun Devils, it had been a painfully long offseason, especially considering the team's first week bye, as they prepared Sacramento State in the season opener. It seemed even longer as the Hornets put together an opening drive that lasted nearly eight minutes, keeping Kelly and the offense waiting on the sidelines. But after a Robert Nelson blocked 33-yard field goal attempt finally turned the ball over the offense, it didn't take Kelly long to find his groove.
Behind Kelly's masterful command, the Sun Devils scored touchdowns on their first five drives of the game and carried a 42-0 lead into halftime, erasing any thought of Sacramento State potentially extending their three game win streak against pac-12 competition.
Kelly completed 23-31 passes for 300 yards and five touchdowns, equaling his career-high. It was also his fourth 300 yard passing game in just 14 career starts, now in his second year as the starting signal caller.
"I felt a lot more comfortable just with the offense and the players," said Kelly afterwards. "The offensive line did a great job tonight giving me the ability to get some time back there and get it to my playmakers. We've just got to be able to improve on the running game and just get that going for next week."
Kelly completed passes to eight different receivers in the first half, including junior college transfer Jaelen Strong who hauled in six catches for 58 yards and one touchdown in his ASU debut. Five different Sun Devils had touchdown receptions in the blowout win, including Chris Coyle, Marion Grice, Kevin Ozier and De'Marieya Nelson, who recorded the first score of the season. Overall, Arizona State out-gained the Hornets in the air 365-116, while playing turnover free football.
"We had weapons all across the field," said Kelly. "They were always getting open. Chris, Rick Smith, Jaelen and D.J. (Foster), they're all great playmakers. I trust what they see and they find great windows for me."
"Truly, it's his confidence," commented Coyle on Kelly's performance. "It's his second year in the system and it's a tough system to play in. We've got a lot of different looks and a lot of different formations, different moving parts every single play. One play can have five different looks that we can give to the defense so the biggest thing is that he understands the playbook.
"Like he said, we've got more weapons now so he's comfortable with spreading the ball out and it's going to make it so the defenses can't key on any one of us and he did a great job of spreading it out tonight."
Marion Grice helped pace the Arizona State offensive attack with a team-high 59 rushing yards on 14 carries. Nearly matching his effort was junior running back Deantre Lewis, who after playing on the defensive side of the ball in 2012, made his return to the Sun Devil backfield with 53 rushing yards and 52 receiving yards. Overall, the Sun Devils gained 176 yards on the ground, helping set up Kelly and the passing game.
"I think one of the biggest things that helps us is we really focus on running the ball and being physical," added Coyle. "So what that does is it brings the defense in and we'll get some of those guys biting up, stepping up on the play and it'll allow us to take a step and go vertical and blow right past them. The defense never knows what to expect and I really think that's how we were able to find that weakness."
Defensively, Arizona State was led by senior safety Alden Darby and redshirt-freshman linebacker Salamo Fiso, who had four tackles apiece. After allowing the Hornets to march down the field on their 16 play, 59 yard opening drive, the Sun Devils denied Sacramento State a first down on their next eight possessions and only six for the game.
ASU forced four turnovers, led by senior linebacker Grandville Taylor, who had a fumble recovery and a 67 yard interception return that set up a four yard Michael Eubank touchdown run in the third quarter. After finishing second in the nation in sacks in last season, the Sun Devils registered only one sack on Thursday, but limited the Hornets to just 167 total yards, including 51 rushing yards on 31 attempts.
"Our defense is great and I expect big plays out of them and to get the ball back for us quickly," said Kelly. "It gives us a lot of motivation just to give the ball to Marion Grice, D.J. Foster, and just to swing it out to Chris Coyle and get some easy yards."
The win marked the first shutout for ASU at Sun Devil Stadium since a 42-0 win over Washington State in 2010. The Sun Devils committed just one penalty in the win for five yards. In 14 games now under Graham, the Sun Devils have committed only 56 total turnovers (4.0 per game). The Sun Devils avoided the trap that a number of other FBS teams fell victim to during the first weekend of the season, including fellow Pac-12 member Oregon State, overwhelming the Hornets on both sides of the ball, just as Graham had challenged them to do leading up to Thursday.
"We had that feeling as a team, as well," remarked Coyle. "We knew that they had beaten the last three Pac-12 teams they played and we weren't going to take them for granted. All this summer training, all the work we put in through camp, we were really set to go out and beat this team. The only way we could have lost is if we beat ourselves. So we did a good job tonight of just focusing on staying mentally tough and everybody executing their assignment.
"One of the big things we've been talking about is ball security. We didn't give up any turnovers and that's one of the things we're going to have to do throughout the season."
With Sacramento State in the rearview, the Sun Devils will now turn the focus towards next weekend's match-up with #21 Wisconsin. Arizona State is 8-0 all-time against Big Ten foes in Tempe and will be looking to exact its revenge for their heartbreaking one point loss to the Badgers in Madison in 2010.
"The biggest thing is we wanted to get this first win under our belt, so now we immediately have to move on to Wisconsin," said Coyle. "We know we have big games after that as well but the next step is Wisconsin so we're 100% focused on that. They were in the Rose Bowl last year. We know what kind of players they have. They're a tough, physical team. We played them years ago and lost by one point, I think. So, we know we can play with them. Our biggest thing is mental errors. That's what lost us that last game; we had a blocked field goal, I remember it perfectly clear. So this year, we have to come in and play our game.
"We have a ton of speed and that's something that we're going to use tour advantage because I remember they were having a tough time keeping up with it. And we're going to use the heat to our advantage as well. You saw Sacramento State out there tonight, they were gassed by the second quarter. So, we're just going to stay mentally strong and run the ball on them and just try to play head-to-head with them."