All week leading up to Arizona State’s Saturday night home duel with No. 24 Oregon, head coach Todd Graham hammered home the same message.
There was a “new season” — a Pac-12 season — on the horizon.
In his eyes, the Sun Devils started off part of the 2017 campaign that matters most on the right note.
“Were 1-0,” he said. “So we’re excited.”
Following back-to-back losses, ASU’s resilient, 37-35 defeat of the visiting Ducks (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) marked a key turnaround and a strong start to the challenging Pac-12 slate.
“Guys made big-time plays in big-time situations,” redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins said. “Big-time players make big-time plays, we got this one, now it’s time to go to the next one and just keep on going.”
It was a hot start to Saturday’s game, though, that had the Sun Devils (2-2, 1-0 Pac-12) in business.
ASU solidified the turn of its new leaf into the Pac-12 season with a Wilkins rushing touchdown in the first two minutes of the game. By the end of the first frame, the Sun Devils had opened up a 17-7 lead thanks to a N’Keal Harry score and a Brandon Ruiz field goal.
Harry — who has become one of Wilkins favorite targets — had an impressive game, leading ASU with 170 yards on seven catches, including three for over 30 yards.
“When I’m throwing 50-50 balls to guys like N’Keal, they’re not 50-50 balls, they’re 100 percent balls,” Wilkins said. “I need to put the ball in the right location and give these guys, these playmakers, an opportunity to run the ball after the catch.”
Graham is certainly glad to see that connection building between starting quarterback and star receiver.
“(Wilkins) and N’Keal have a feel for each other that’s really neat,” he said. “They call their plays a lot of times, those guys are pretty good.”
Wilkins, in particular, had a fantastic game of his own, throwing for 347 yards on 24-of-39 passing with one touchdown and a passer rating of 144.7.
According to his head coach, the progression made by Wilkins this season as a player and a leader on the field has been …
“He’s tough, he’s starting to be a play-caller,” Graham said. “A lot of our plays, he’s calling. Manny’s a leader, he’s an emotional leader, he’s got a genuineness to him that I really like, and he’s really learning and working hard to be better at managing the game. I thought he played really, really good.”
In order to get things going in ASU’s favor out of the gates in conference play, Graham made it clear that he wanted to be aggressive.
His pension for risky play showed up throughout the night — and paid off — most notably with a key onside kick recovery allowing the Sun Devils to take over and build momentum following a go-ahead score in the first quarter.
“I just felt like we needed to be aggressive because we needed to win,” Graham said. “We needed a big win like this. We made up our minds that if we scored we were going to onside kick. I thought that was what our guys needed, they needed some energy.”
Following the win, the energy was like nothing seen this season, and for good reason. In what was arguably the Sun Devils’ best win since defeated then-No. 7 UCLA in 2015, ASU showed improvements on all sides of the ball.
According to Graham, the scene in the locker room following the game put on display the emotion and excitement that goes along with such a victory.
“I wish you guys could’ve been in the locker room,” he said. “It was pretty cool.”
It’s that kind of momentum and adrenaline that he has to hope carries over into the next several weeks, as the “new season” includes several daunting opponents early on.
Next week, the Sun Devils will pay a visit a tough Stanford side before coming home to take on No. 7 Washington.
Entering those tests, if nothing else, the confidence surrounding this ASU team is higher than it’s been in quite some time.
“I just see a team that’s hungry,” Wilkins said. “I look in Chase Lucas’ eyes and I see a dog in him. I look in N’Keal’s eyes, I see, ‘Throw me the ball.’ When I see Kalen, ‘Let me run the ball up the middle,” (Demario Richard) as well, our offensive line, they’re hungry, they’re ready. I just think this team, together, we play really well together, and when we’re clicking, it looks beautiful, it’s a thing of art.”