Offensive playmakers showing up
Head coach Herm Edwards was asked if star wide receiver N’Keal Harry’s performances the past two games were by design, his answer:
“The design is very simple. Can three (sophomore running back Eno Benjamin) touch the ball? And can one (Harry) touch the ball,” Edwards said.
On Saturday, Harry and Benjamin touched the ball plenty, the two combined for 36 touches and five touchdowns in Arizona State’s (5-4, 3-3 Pac-12) 38-20 win over No. 16 Utah (6-3, 4-3).
Harry had a monster day, on nine receptions the junior had 161 yards and three touchdowns. There’s an argument to be made of what Harry’s best play of the day was. His shake of the defender at the goal line for an easy touchdown. The touchdown grab on a back-shoulder toss from redshirt senior quarterback Manny Wilkins. Shedding defenders on his 61-yard touchdown where he was held. A bubble screen where he reversed field like N’Keal Harry does to set the Sun Devils up for a Brandon Ruiz field goal.
The argument that can’t be made is the talent, the plays, it comes of no shock to anyone.
“No surprise at all,” Benjamin said of Harry’s big day. “That’s N’Keal, it’s what he does. You guys even know that as well. He played his role, I think we all did a great job of playing our roles in this game.”
There was a scary instance late in the first half, Harry caught his second touchdown from the slot on a seem route, came up favoring his right shoulder. He went into the locker room early, but obviously he came back out to finish his stellar day.
“I just had to check myself mentally, make sure I was in it. I was going through a little bit of pain, but I knew the second half I had to be tough,” Harry said. “On that last touchdown (the 61-yarder), Manny did a great job of staying in the pocket, he took a hit while he threw it. It was a great all-around performance by the offense and our defense.”
With the addition of Utah, the Sun Devils had faced the three best rushing defenses in the nation with Michigan State and San Diego State at the top as well. In the win against the Michigan State, Benjamin only had 27 yards, it got even worse against San Diego State when he had only 21 yards. Third time was the charm on Saturday as Benjamin found holes and worked for yards to get to 175 on the day and two touchdowns.
The Utes only allowed a little over 81 yards per game coming into Tempe, Benjamin got off to a hot start, getting 66 yards on ASU’s first two drives when they jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Not only did Benjamin start well, but finished the game as well. His 44-yard touchdown with over four minutes left in the game killed any hope of a comeback Utah still had.
“We’re a much more physical dominating team than we were earlier in the season,” Benjamin said. “We were still trying to put some pieces together earlier in the season, and I think now were up and going. We’re rolling.”
The Sun Devil defense only allowed three points on the second half, they forced three turnovers and three sacks. Part of that can be attributed to the Utes losing their starting junior quarterback Tyler Huntley and putting in freshman Jason Shelley. However, still impressive against a team who had put up 40-plus points the previous four games.
“Came in at half and I said ‘Okay, we talked about this,’ and we did. We talked about this all week, it’s going to be ugly, it’s going to be close. Said it was close against Michigan State, I asked them the score and they actually knew what the score was,” Edwards said.
“I said, ‘Okay, we’re in the game. Let’s just keep playing.’ We needed to play good in the third quarter, we just needed to do that. The whole defense I thought second half, all of them, they played tough, played angry and they played fast. Second half to me was the game — to the coaches credit, to the players credit they buckled down.”
The freshmen defenders stood out again, safety Aashari Crosswell and linebacker Merlin Robertson each had an interception. Redshirt freshman linebacker Tyler Johnson had a tackle for a loss and a few pressures including one on Crosswell’s interception.
“Coming out of halftime we have to stay warm, keep energy. The fans helped us out with that a lot, and we just kept pushing and pushing the more turnovers we got, tackles for losses, the energy got up,” Johnson said.
Crosswell the previous few weeks had dropped a pair of interceptions, on an odd play in the first quarter where Huntley avoided a sack and threw it deep, Crosswell ended up picking it off. The ball bounced out of freshman wide receiver Jaylen Dixon’s hand near the goal line and into Crosswell’s, who proceeded to return it near midfield.
“The rush was great. Everything was going fine, then when the ball was in the air, the sun was in my eye, I couldn’t even see nothing. It was just a great play by me and it was a great play by the people rushing to give me my first pick,” Crosswell said.
After the victory, with the scrambled mess that is the Pac-12 South, the Sun Devils control their own destiny for an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game. Arizona State will host UCLA next week before going on the road to Oregon and rival Arizona.
For Wilkins and Harry (if Harry decides to declare for the NFL draft), their time as Sun Devils is winding down and with the chance to make it to Santa Clara in their own hands they don’t want to squander the opportunity.
“He (Harry) can tell you, we talk about it all the time. We put too much work in together, I work countless hours with one,” Wilkins said. “For him to have moments like this it’s very special for me because I know how hard he works. I know how much this sport and game mean to him. Having a guy like that to throw the football to is very special.”