September 6, 2013

Notebook: Rare shutout in season opener for ASU

Arizona State's last shutout in its season opener came in 1993 during Bill Clinton's first year in office. That changed on Thursday against FCS opponent Sacramento State.

It was the first shutout win over coach Todd Graham's 8-year, 59-game college coaching career and only the third ASU shutout since its famed win over then No. 1 Nebraska in 1996.

It's a shutout that almost wasn't, though, as an energized Sacramento State opened the game with a 19 play drive that lasted 7:45 and ended inside the red zone on a blocked field goal attempt by senior Robert Nelson.

The Hornets converted four consecutive third downs on the drive, three of which were longer than six yards.

Nelson seemingly was unblocked off the edge on a 33-yard attempt by Jesse Aguilar and Sacramento State didn't get a better opportunity the rest of the night.

"I was kind of mad," Graham said of the opening defensive series. "We weren't pressing up on third down. I was trying to figure out a way to stop them...One of the things that I was not pleased with is that in that drive we were misaligned. We were supposed to be down (in press), we're off. Little things like that 'give me' first down that we don't usually do. We were a little bit sluggish. I was a little perturbed on that drive. I got over it."

The defense clearly got the message as it did not allow a single Hornets first down for the rest of the half and only allowed 108 yards the rest of the game.

Redshirt opportunities preserved

A handful of true freshmen saw second-team reps throughout the last month of practice and as a result it seemed as though at least several would see the field Thursday. Graham even said in Monday's weekly press conference that receiver Ellis Jefferson would play.

Close inspection of the game's participation list included no Jefferson however. It also included no mention of devil backer Chans Cox, who appeared to have won a reserve job at the position in the last week, or safety James Johnson, a candidate for action at the injury depleted field safety spot.

Coaches had a different plan in mind. This was made clear when starting field safety Laiu Moeakiola was still in at the position during the fourth quarter.

In the end, only freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez saw action.

""That's a big decision," Graham said. "I am 100 percent committed, obviously, to 2013 but we also want to be smart about what we're doing. We got a lot of quality players in that freshman class. There's no way we're going to redshirt all of them. But I don't want to play somebody in a mop up duty situation and then regret it."

Graham is able to be more careful this year about whose redshirt seasons he scraps because of improved depth at a number of positions. There are some lingering regrets from 2012.

"We played (offensive tackle) Evan Goodman last year and we shouldn't have," Graham said. Now we're sitting in a situation where he's a backup he could possibility be playing and now you're trying to figure out if there's a way you can redshirt him (this season). We're just trying to be smart about it. What we said is if we get ahead early we have plenty of depth as far as playing people and people to play, let's don't burn somebody's redshirt and regret it."

Graham did say he's convinced that eventually some of the freshmen wide receivers -- a group that also counts Cameron Smith and Ronald Lewis -- would play.

Strong shines in debut

Expectations have been high for sophomore wide receiver transfer Jaelen Strong since Graham heaped praise on him on signing day in February and he didn't disappoint in his first game as a Sun Devil.

Strong led the team with six receptions for 58 yards and one touchdown. The touchdown came on a spot on pass over the middle from Taylor Kelly on a post route. With a man draped all over him, Strong used his size and athletic ability to snag the ball out of the air despite being fouled on the play.

Coaches have noted Strong's rapid improvement and are confident he brings a new quality to the team, even as he's still early in the adjustment to Division I football.

"Jaelen is a big, physical guy who can go up and get the ball," Graham said. "He gives us a nice target out there. He's learning, so he's only going to get better."

Historic 'Tillman Tunnel' renovated

ASU's honoring of former star player and military hero Pat Tillman, who was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2004 after turning down a multi-million dollar NFL contract was taken to a different level Thursday.

Around 2006 or 2007, the tunnel that ASU came out of every home game began to be informally known as the 'Tillman Tunnel,' believed to be termed first by Tillman's brother-in-law Alex Garwood.

On Thursday, the school revealed its renovation of the Tillman Tunnel. The makeover entails a two-door picture of Tillman walking out on to the field, giving players the feeling that he is leading them out of the tunnel.

"I love taking the field with the guys," Graham said. "It's a great atmosphere coming through the Tillman Tunnel. It's been renovated. It's pretty awesome. It's pretty neat standing there and it's got Pat's life-size picture. It looks like he's taking the field with us and the guys are banging on that gate. It's pretty cool and pretty intense. I have to kind of take a deep breath and remind myself that I'm not the one playing."


  • Four different players on defense had four tackles. That was the highest number tackle in the game by anyone on the team.

  • Senior linebacker Chris Young went out in the what Todd Graham referred to as a 'tweak' in the third quarter.

  • ASU scored a touchdown four times on the same play which was a read option fake.

  • Both Bercovici and Eubank saw substantial playing time, especially in the fourth quarter.

  • Junior linebacker Carl Bradford did not record a single tackle in the game.

  • ASU only committed one penalty all game, a goal that coaches have been striving for.

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