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September 1, 2006

No. 24 Sun Devils pull away from N. Arizona

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TEMPE, Ariz. - 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 on 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 Arizona State at the Northern Arizona 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. Watson caught 11 passes for 206 yards.

Murrietta scrambled and almost was sacked by Kellen Mills before getting the ball to Watson behind Sun Devils safety Zach Catanese with 5:44 left in the first quarter to give Northern Arizona a 7-0 lead.

Arizona State answered with a seven-play, 56-yard drive, capped by Carpenter's 13-yard to Shaun DeWitty with 13:36 left in the half.

But Murrietta and Watson hooked up again with 6:13 left on a screen to the right that put the Lumberjacks back up 14-7.

The Sun Devils took advantage of a 12-yard punt by Rhian Madrid that gave Arizona State the ball at the Sun Devils 40 with 1:52 to go until the break. Carpenter hit DeWitty on a quick 21-yard out, and connected with Ryan Torain one play later on a screen as Torain outran the defense for a 39-yard score to tie it at 14.

"We had a great chance to get off to a super start and we throw an interception in the red zone on the first drive, and then we get four chances inside the 5-yard-line and can't punch it in on the second drive," Koetter said. "So we have no one to blame but ourselves."

Carpenter, a sophomore who played half a season last year after an injury to starter Sam Keller, was named the starter on Aug. 20, two days after Koetter said Keller, a senior, would start.

Keller subsequently quit the team and transferred to Nebraska.

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