Albuquerque, NM (SportsNetwork.com) - With their sights set on a 2-0 start, the 17th-ranked Arizona Sun Devils hit the road to face the New Mexico Lobos at University Stadium on Saturday evening.
Arizona State began the season ranked No. 19 in the nation, but moved up two spots following a 45-14 rout of FCS foe Weber State in last week's opener. The Sun Devils have won their season opener in each of the last 12 seasons, which is tied for the second-longest streak in the country.
New Mexico came back from a 24-7 halftime deficit in its lid lifter against Texas-El Paso, but ultimately fell short in a 31-24 decision. After tying the game with 8:10 to play on a 35-yard field goal from Zack Rogers, a three-yard touchdown run from UTEP's Aaron Jones late in the final quarter dashed the Lobos' hopes. For a team that has not had more than four wins since 2007, letting such a game slip away really hurts.
"We just couldn't get any confidence. We couldn't get any rhythm on offense. We could not get any rhythm," New Mexico head coach Bob Davie said. "Honestly, the part on offense was the snaps. The snaps were high; then they were low. We really didn't get our cleats in the ground until the second half."
These teams have met 28 times previously, although the last contest took place in 1977 when Arizona State claimed a 45-24 victory. The win was the 22nd for the Sun Devils against the Lobos, whom they have defeated in 12 of 14 games at home.
Arizona State is one of the fortunate teams in the country to return its starting quarterback in Taylor Kelly, and two of its most productive skill position players (D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong) from a year ago. They are even more fortunate because last year's team was one of the best offensive groups in the Pac-12 Conference, averaging 457.3 yards per game. The Sun Devils picked up right where they left off against Weber State, rolling up 570 total yards and picking up 32 first downs.
Kelly is one of the most versatile and talented signal callers in the Pac-12, if not the nation. He showed off his passing strength more so than his ability on the ground in the opener, throwing for 238 yards and a touchdown on 18- of-27 passing before being spelled by backup Mike Bercovici.
Strong and Foster are also offensive threats with all-conference ability, who have made major impacts for the Arizona State offense in the past. Both had stellar showings in the season debut. Strong had game-highs in receptions (10) and receiving yards (146), while Foster piled up 147 yards and three touchdowns on only 15 carries. The trio of Kelly, Foster and Strong is one that will give any team fits, especially with Kelly's ability to run and Foster's skill as a receiver and a runner.
"I think D.J. can do it all, inside or outside, and he is just getting started," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. "I have never had a tailback that versatile. He could start at wide receiver, he is that good of a wide receiver."
Of course Arizona State's dominance of Weber State was not solely a result of the Sun Devils' offensive showing. They were also effective on the defensive side of the ball, limiting the Wildcats to just 308 total yards and 14 first downs. They also did not allow a point until the second half, while permitting the Wildcats just two trips to the red zone.
There were some areas that could use some improvement, however, especially in the turnover and pressure departments. Arizona State did not come up with a single takeaway and only had two sacks, one of which was credited to Salamo Fiso, who led the Sun Devils in tackles (seven) as well.
Despite falling short against UTEP, New Mexico was actually the better offensive team. The Lobos had as many first downs as the Miners (20), while out-gaining them in total yards (477-446). However, unlike the versatile Arizona State offense, the Lobos' scheme is predicated almost exclusively on running the football. Of their 447 total yards, only 67 came through the air.
Quarterback Cole Gautsche was the top gainer for the team, racking up 184 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. He completed only 3-of-5 passes for 36 yards.
Also figuring prominently in the run-heavy attack were Jhurell Pressley and Teriyon Gipson. Pressley tallied 84 yards on just nine carries, while Gipson posted 71 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts. Carlos Wiggins (45 yards) also had an impact on the game.
Dakota Cox was all over the field for the New Mexico defense against UTEP. He finished with an incredible 17 tackles, although 15 of those were assisted. SaQuan Edwards tallied 2.5 tackles for loss, as the Lobos allowed 446 total yards and a 7-of-14 success rate on third-down conversions to the Miners.