After a very long off-season, the first full weekend of college football is finally here, and with it comes the first Three Tines to Victory of the year. The Arizona State Sun Devils take on the Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks on Saturday night, and are heavily favored against the FCS-level squad. Bill Connelly’s preseason S&P+ ratings over at SB Nation’s Football Study Hall website give ASU a 94% chance of beating NAU, and a projected margin of victory of 26.8. Since victory is near-certain, this week’s three tines will be what ASU needs to do to make their outing against NAU a successful one that provides optimism for the rest of the season, rather than what they need to do to actually win the game.
Northern Arizona at Arizona State, Saturday 8pm on Pac-12 Network
I don’t want to completely overlook NAU, though. They are a quality FCS football team, projected by the media to win their conference. They have steadily improved their roster over the last few years, and have several players who are talented enough to play at the FBS level. They’re good enough that if ASU plays sloppy, they could make the Sun Devils’ sweat their season opener.
First Tine to Victory: Efficient quarterback play
The last time ASU and NAU played, Taylor Kelly was making his first career start in Todd Graham’s first game as ASU’s head coach. Kelly had just won a contested quarterback competition that he was not expected to win, and set everyone’s minds at ease with a highly efficient, 15-19 for 247 yards and 1 TD performance. Manny Wilkins is likely to start Saturday’s game, and a Taylor Kelly-like performance would indicate that ASU might be able to get the kind of production from the quarterback position that they need in order to improve upon last season’s 6-7 record. An uneven performance, on the other hand, could lead to Brady White seeing some significant playing time while the result of the game is still in doubt. If he then fails to find a rhythm, it would be a strong indication that the offense will go through some growing pains in 2016, and more immediately, that ASU probably wouldn’t have the offensive firepower needed to keep up with Texas Tech the following week.
Second Tine to Victory: Competence in the secondary
In 2015, the Sun Devils fielded one of the worst pass defenses in the country, and the worst in school history. Repeatedly giving up big plays in the passing game was probably the biggest factor in 2015 being a disappointment. Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have spoken frequently this off-season about the need to eliminate big pass plays, and NAU should provide enough of a test to see if they’ve made progress. Quarterback Case Cookus had an outstanding freshman season in 2015, throwing for over 3,000 yards with a 37-5 TD-INT ratio. NAU also has talent at wide receiver, most notably Emmanuel Butler and Elijah Marks. If the ASU secondary is able to avoid coverage breakdowns and keep NAU’s passing game in check, it would be a sign that, while it may not be a strength yet, the secondary may be improved enough to not sink the Sun Devils’ season, as it did last year. However, a performance in which NAU is able to move the ball through the air, especially in big chunks, would give ASU fans a “here we go again” feeling, even in victory.
Third Tine to Victory: No injuries
In ASU’s 2015 game against Cal Poly, safety Armand Perry went down with a season-ending injury in the second half. Ami Latu, and several other players also suffered more minor injuries. Some of this was due to Cal Poly’s style of play, but a big culprit was ASU’s inability to put the FCS opponent away, making it necessary for starting players to play a significant number of snaps in the second half. If ASU can make tines 1 and 2 happen, they should be able to dispatch of NAU quickly, and avoid the need to have starters play much in the second half, reducing the likelihood of significant injuries. This is especially important in the secondary, as the unit is a weak spot to begin with, and Laiu Moeakiola, Marcus Ball, James Johnson, and Das Tautalatasi have all been banged up and missed practice in fall camp.
If ASU is able to plant all three of these tines in the turf after a lopsided win over NAU, it will go a long way in providing optimism that the 2016 season will not be the disappointment that 2015 was. It would provide hope that the Sun Devils will field an offense productive enough to allow them to compete with most of the teams on the schedule, and a secondary that won’t waste that productivity by constantly giving up big plays.