TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State ushered in the Herm Edwards era with a blowout win last Saturday, while No. 13 Michigan State had a much more difficult time in its season opener.
You could almost say Sparty escaped, pulling ahead in the final two minutes for a 38-31 victory over Utah State, a victory that cost them two spots in the AP poll.
“We certainly make it interesting,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose team won four games by seven points or less in a 10-win 2017 season.
“I wish we wouldn’t.”
Edwards was less than enthusiastic about the Sun Devils’ 49-7 blowout over UTSA, in which senior quarterback Manny Wilkins threw a career-high four touchdown passes. He cited sloppy play and penalties.
“I didn’t like what I was watching a lot of times,” said Edwards, back on the sideline for the first time since he left the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008.
He also issued a warning.
“The team coming in here next week, put your big boy pants on, because they’re going to run the football,” Edwards said.
Arizona State limited UTSA to 220 yards total offense and two yards rushing, mostly because of nine sacks — that lost yardage is counted against the team rushing total in the NCAA.
This figures to be different.
Michigan State loves to pound the ball on the ground, with NFL star Le’Veon Bell the latest in a long string of powerful Spartan tailbacks. The Spartans rushed for 165 yards against Utah State, 84 by starting tailback L.J. Scott, and used two touchdowns by sophomore Connor Heyward to hold off the Aggies.
Heyward, the son of Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, had 42 yards on five carries, and his 13-yard run with 2:00 remaining gave Michigan State the lead for good. The Spartans had a 15:28 advantage in time of possession.
Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke, a Phoenix native, completed 23-of-33 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the opener. He threw a pick-six and also lost a fumble.
“It’s hard to win, so you can never be disappointed about a win,” Lewerke said.
The Sun Devils have beaten the last three nationally ranked nonconference opponents they have met at home — No. 8 Notre Dame (2014), No. 20 Wisconsin (2013) and No. 21 Missouri (2011). They also beat No. 5 Washington at home last season.
Michigan State faces a stiff test in Arizona State’s three-pronged offensive attack, led by Wilkins, favorite wide receiver junior N’Keal Harry and sophomore halfback Eno Benjamin.
Wilkins threw for 237 yards without an interception against UTSA, Harry had six catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns and Benjamin had a career-high 131 yards rushing in his first start. He scored on a 3-yard run and a 7-yard reception. Harry is a preseason AP second-team All-American and has receptions in all 26 career games. He is 59 yards short of 2,000 receiving yards in his career.
“The biggest enemy of success is complacency,” Wilkins said. “If we get complacent with where we are, if we’re complacent with scoring 49 against UTSA … That’s not going to cut it next week. It’s not going to cut it the week after.”
Wilkins and Harry connected on a 58-yard scoring pass on the fourth play of the game, and the Sun Devils led 14-0 less than two minutes into the game after defensive end Shannon Forman returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown. ASU has 17 interception returns for a touchdowns in the last seven seasons, most in the FBS.
“A lot of different looks, a lot of different pressures, a lot of different angles they come at you with,” Dantonio said of the Arizona State defense.
“We have to be prepared for that. Got to protect our quarterback on different coverages. I think they’re doing a nice job defensively. We have to protect the quarterback. Nine sacks, numerous other quarterback hits.”
Edwards added San Diego State defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales to his staff in the offseason, and the Spartans have studied Aztecs’ film looking for tendencies.
Dantonio and Edwards have trod similar ground on their way to the top, although Edwards has not been in college coaching since he was an assistant at San Jose State in the late 1980s.
Dantonio was the defensive backfield coach at Kansas in the early 1990s at the same time Edwards was the defensive backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Good guy. You could tell that. Got charisma. Says what he means,” Dantonio said. “He was one of the guys they were bringing him along as a defensive assistant. (Tony) Dungy was a secondary coach there. Unbelievable staff.
“We’re going to find out more about our football team and their football team on Saturday night.”