TEMPE – Northern Arizona gave Arizona State a bit of a scare for three quarters.
The 24th-ranked Sun Devils ended any ideas of an upset with an offensive surge in the last 15 minutes.
Rudy Carpenter threw for 261 yards and two touchdowns, and the Sun Devils rallied past Division I-AA Northern Arizona 35-14 Thursday night in the season opener for both teams.
“We wanted to get a win, and we got a win,” Sun Devils coach Dirk Koetter said. “You can’t have it exactly how we want it.”
Chris Baloney’s 35-yard interception return on the first play of the fourth quarter finally gave Arizona State its first lead at 21-14.
“I was excited,” Baloney said. “I didn’t know what to do. First interception in D-I and took it the house. I was so excited. My son was in the stands. I was overwhelmed.”
Keegan Herring added a 15-yard touchdown run with 11:58 left, and Dmitri Nance ran in from 6 yards to cap a late 91-yard drive that put the Sun Devils in control.
“NAU has a different style of defense that we never really see,” Carpenter said. “They got three safeties. I would say they do whatever they want. It was really confusing to us. We didn’t know who to block, who to throw to.”
Carpenter was 17 of 24 with one interception, and Arizona State’s defense sacked Jason Murrietta nine times, including three by Derron Ware.
“It was very important to set the tone,” said Ware, who had eight tackles. “(Defensive coordinator) Bill Miller said before we walked out, ‘We might be up first, and we need to set the tone of the game.
“We had a lot of blitz calls where I could get a free rush. I could just use my speed to get past them to try and get some sacks.”
Murrietta completed 15 of 20 passes for 259 yards and two long scores, keeping the Lumberjacks tied through three quarters.
“We played well through the third quarter,” Murrietta said. “However, our numbers got to us. I think if we played again, we would win.”
Baloney opened the final quarter by stepping in front of intended receiver Kenny Mahone and ran untouched for the score. On Arizona State’s next possession, Herring took a handoff right, found no room and reversed field, went back behind the 25 and found the left corner to cap a three-play drive.
“I credit Arizona State,” Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said. “They made plays that wore us down at the end, and that became obvious. Some of the big plays that we were able to generate, we weren’t able to do them consistently enough.”
The Lumberjacks held off the Sun Devils in the second half by intercepting a tipped pass by Carpenter in the end zone and then stopping ASU at the NAU 1 on fourth-and-goal with 8:07 left in the first quarter.
Northern Arizona scored twice in the first half on big plays. Murrietta hit Alex Watson with touchdown passes of 80 and 60 yards to give the Lumberjacks the lead both times.