Calling the shots: Kenny Dillingham, ASU football discover offensive mojo despite loss to Trojans

USC players react during their team’s victory over ASU in Tempe. The Sun Devils kept the Trojans on their toes with unique play-calling. (Photo by William Wilson/Cronkite News)

ASU quarterback Drew Pyne threw for 221 yards on 21-of-36 passing with two touchdowns, an interception and a lost fumble. (Photo by William Wilson/Cronkite News)

ASU football coach Kenny Dillingham took over play-calling responsibilities Saturday to much success, but the Sun Devils fell 42-28 against USC at Mountain America Stadium. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

TEMPE – Coach Kenny Dillingham vowed to fix his team’s offense after Arizona State was shut out at Mountain America Stadium by Fresno State in Week 3 of the college football season – even if it meant taking matters into his own hands.

A week later, the Sun Devils delivered on the first-year head coach’s promise by posting their highest point total of the season against USC behind Dillingham’s creative play calling.

Despite the improved offense, the Sun Devils lost Saturday 42-28 and still have plenty of holes to fill before their first road trip next weekend against California.

“We’re going to be better. That’s what I told our guys,” Dillingham said Monday. “We played a lot better, but there is a difference between playing better and playing good, and you can’t be satisfied with mediocre. Better is nowhere to be confused with good, and we’ve got a long way to go to get to where I feel like the standard of an offense is.”

As the new play-caller Saturday, Dillingham dipped into his bag of tricks and utilized every facet of his playbook, primarily with running back Cam Skattebo playing multiple roles to keep USC’s defense on its heels.

Skattebo ran the ball, caught it, threw it and even punted it on ASU’s first punt of the game.

He finished with 42 passing yards, completing two of three attempts. He rushed for 111 rushing yards on 20 carries and added 79 receiving yards on four catches. He scored two touchdowns.
Oh, and that punt traveled 53 yards.

“(Dillingham) went into the game with a great game plan and aggressive play calling,” junior receiver Elijhah Badger said following the game Saturday. “He just used everybody to the best of their ability.”

ASU passed for 263 yards, the most it has in a game all season. Its 353 total offensive yards were the most since Week 1 against Southern Utah, when the Sun Devils gained 371 total yards.

In the second half against USC, the Sun Devils had the most yards and points in a second half all season, scoring 15 points and piling up 217 yards of offense.

“Kenny is a tremendous offensive coach, so we were going to see a different atmosphere, a different team, and a different challenge,” USC coach Lincoln Riley predicted before the game.

A sellout crowd defined the atmosphere at Mountain America Stadium Saturday when Arizona State played then-No. 5 USC close before falling, 42-28. (Photo by William Wilson/Cronkite News)

ASU’s output only confirmed that opinion.

“They threw a little bit of everything at us, and some of it we handled well and some of it we didn’t handle great,” Riley said in the aftermath.

Dillingham did not reveal Monday whether he would continue calling plays, and despite the drastic offensive improvement, he knows victory and growth result in two different feelings.

“The victory side is how you feel Saturday night,” Dillingham said. “You should never feel satisfied on a Saturday night if you don’t win the football game. But you can still understand the growth that happened when you wake up in the morning.”

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne, who transferred from Notre Dame, was at the helm of the offense in his first start in a Sun Devil uniform. He threw for 221 yards on 21-for-36 passing with two touchdowns, an interception and a lost fumble.

While Pyne played the whole game, Dillingham said Monday that Pyne was left banged up from the game and revealed that he expects junior quarterback Trenton Bourguet to return from injury this week before the Sun Devils head to Berkeley, California to face the Golden Bears.

Meanwhile, the Sun Devils remain limited due to injuries along the offensive line. Dillingham didn’t give any updates on the line’s health but did note that depth issues were hard to manage for a decimated unit that gave up seven sacks in the fourth quarter against the Trojans.

“That starts with me understanding and being more timely with some calls in order to protect our (offensive)-line,” Dillingham said Saturday after the loss. “We got seven or eight guys rolling on the O-line, so it was one of those scenarios where I should have known and had a better feel for where our guys were and not putting them in those situations.”

Dillingham and the Sun Devils will now focus on their road trip to Berkeley.

“This guy (Cal head coach Justin Wilcox) is going to be aggressive,” Dillingham said. “He’s not going to call inside zone 12 times, get 3 ½ yards, and say, ‘We can do this all the way down the field and take nine minutes off the clock.’”

The matchup will be the first time ASU has traveled on the road this season after close to a month of regular-season play. Cal is 2-2 with victories over Idaho and North Texas and a close loss to Auburn in Week 2. They were trounced 59-32 at Washington last week.

Though the preparation and practices will be similar for ASU, the process of traveling for the season’s first road game will come with distractions.

But for Dillingham, that shouldn’t matter.

“Regardless of how well I tell them … there’s still going to be differences than how we operate right now,” Dillingham said. “The key is just that none of that stuff matters. Show up to the meetings. Be on time. Don’t worry about when we board the plane. Pack your shoes. Let’s go play football. Prepare like you’re playing football.”

Walker Smith(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Walker Smith expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism with a certificate in marketing. Smith has worked as an editor and reporter for The State Press and as a production assistant with Big Slate Media and Pac-12 Plus.