TEMPE (Cronkite News) – Monday afternoon, Arizona State football coach Herm Edwards said, “I like that kid,” when talking about true freshman starting quarterback Jayden Daniels. And in Thursday night’s season opening 30-7 victory over Kent State University, everybody could see why.
Between the offense that was motivated in the second half and the defense that dominated KSU from the first snap of the game, ASU was determined to secure a home win to open up its 2019-20 season.
“The kids played with a sense of ‘We are not losing this game, we are are not losing this game.’ And that’s just the mindset that they had,” Edwards said afterward.
Daniels is the first true freshman quarterback to start the season for the Sun Devils.
It took a while for the offense to get rolling. Daniels’ first play from scrimmage was an overthrown pass of about 10 yards. After the game, Daniels laughed and said it was a miscommunication and his fault on that one.
“It’s a special moment (to) go out there and get my first college win, but there’s a lot we have to improve on,” Daniels said. “We can’t be too content with the win.”
Two plays later, Daniels lofted an on-target throw down the right sideline to a streaking Frank Darby, who made the right adjustment to the ball and completed a 42-yard-play that would set up the opening score of the game, a 35-yard field goal by ASU kicker Cristian Zendejas.
Zendejas, a red-shirt sophomore, was only in this game because starting place kicker Brandon Ruiz had a “lower-extremity injury” and was out for the contest. Edwards praised Zendejas postgame for being able to step in and help the team.
On the third drive of the game, Daniels scored the first touchdown of his college career, and the first touchdown of the season for the Sun Devils, when he rolled out to the right side on a play action boot, evaded an unblocked rusher, and threw it back to the center of the endzone for a streaking Eno Benjamin, making the lead 10-0 for ASU.
The defense held Kent State starting quarterback Woody Barrett to 1-of-7 passing and 6 yards in the first half. The Golden Flashes actually made a quarterback change after the first quarter and put in junior Dustin Crum, who made some plays with his legs but not his arm as he went into halftime 2 for 5 with a minus-7 yards.
“Playing off-schedule quite a bit,” Kent State coach Sean Lewis said. “Arizona State did a job at disguising some of their coverages, some things that haven’t shown on tape from year one. So there’s been some growth from year one to year two.”
“(We’re) very confident,” said ASU senior defensive back Kobe Williams. “That was our mindset coming in, trying to be as great as we want to be. We have to keep improving now every single game and every single day at practice to be where we want to be. We had them a minus-one passing yards for a long time and that’s all we kept talking about.”
The ASU defense forced six fumbles, two recovered by the Devils, and held the Golden Flashes to 200 total yards: 80 passing and 120 rushing.
“They go pretty fast,” said ASU red-shirt senior linebacker Khalan Kearse-Thomas. “We practiced all week going pretty fast, so once the tempo started going we knew we had to start going. It got real comfortable towards the end.”
In the second half, Daniels and the offense got it going. The first drive of the second half resulted in a touchdown and was 70 yards in nine plays with 55 of those yards coming on the ground, a staple of Herm Edwards football. The drive after that started off a recovered fumble by the defense and resulted in a Zendejas field goal to make the game 20-0.
Edwards said he “spoke to a few offensive guys at halftime,” and then smiled and sipped his water.
Then, ASU really broke it open on their third drive of the second half. Daniels threw a tunnel screen to the left side to senior receiver Brandon Aiyuk. The pass went about five yards, but Aiyuk made a run after the catch and went 77 yards to the house to make the score 27-0 and put the game officially out of reach.
“They are basically a 50-front team, but they were running a four-two front cover-one challenging us and we were having a hard time protecting,” ASU offensive coordinator Rob Likens said. “So I knew that if we could get a screen off and just get one or two blocks off we could be gone and that’s what Brandon did.”
ASU, for the second year in a row, is an extremely young team. Edwards and the crew played 25 freshmen in this game. Fourteen were true freshmen, 11 were red-shirt freshmen.
Offensive line still a major question mark
The offensive line had two freshman starters this game for two separate reasons. Red-shirt senior left tackle Zach Robertson has been away from the team for undisclosed reasons for over a month, which forced former starting center senior Cohl Cabral out to tackle.
Red-shirt senior Cade Cote moved into the starting center spot, but later broke his foot in practice, which meant his backup, true freshman Dohnovan West, started. And then red-shirt freshman right guard Jarrett Bell beat out senior Roy Hemsley for the start.
It ends up with two freshmen starting on the offensive line and a true freshman snapping to a true freshman for the first time in school history. The offensive line surrendered five sacks in this game. Last season, the offensive line for the Sun Devils allowed only 16 sacks all year.
Fumble streak lost
Eno Benjamin fumbled early on in the second quarter. This fumble stopped a streak of 910 consecutive carries where no ASU running back had lost a fumble. The last lost fumble by an ASU running back was in the 2016 season. 31 games ago.
Next up for the teams
ASU will face off against Sacramento State at home on Friday, Sept. 6 at 7 p.m.