No. 13 ASU looks to rebound against Washington State

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- One dream is over, but several more remain well within grasp.

Arizona State’s stunning 35-27 loss to Oregon State all but eliminated the Sun Devils from playoff contention. However, while they no longer control their own destiny, ASU is very much alive in the Pac-12 South race.

But back to the loss to the Beavers. If ASU could possibly do it wrong, they did so on Saturday night.

“We came in and went through the whole film and graded everything and it was just not our night,” said ASU head coach Todd Graham. “We didn’t operate very well and beat ourselves in just about every area.”

The eerie tone of the night was set early when ASU fell behind 14-3 early on a pair of long touchdown runs by OSU’s Storm Woods and Terron Ward. The Beavers came into the game ranked 113th in the nation in rushing at just 108 per game, yet gained 148 on their first four attempts and finished with 249 on the night.

“We didn’t play well, we didn’t adjust well, and we didn’t respond to adversity well,” said Graham.

ASU rallied behind a pair of Taylor Kelly touchdown passes and a defensive score to take a 24-14 halftime lead. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, their second-half struggles reappeared. The offense produced just three points over the final two quarters, while the defense was torched for a 67-yard touchdown reception by Jordan Villamin on a third and long.

“We were 11/11 on third down, and I wish we could have that last third down back,” said Graham. “We wound up being 1/12 because we ran a pressure we hadn’t ran.”

Graham elaborated and took the blame.

“We were winning 27-21 and we didn’t need to make that call on third down. It is okay to do things that we need to do, but we tried to do something new and that was a bad call.”

The pass was part of the 498 yards surrendered by ASU’s defense. That unit had put together four impressive outings in a row before the debacle in Corvallis, but they were not the only culprits.

“Our execution, specifically on offense, just hasn’t been there,” said Graham. 

One of the things being examined most harshly in the wake of the loss is the play of Kelly, who put forth another uneven performance at quarterback.

After starting the game by completing 10 of his first 14 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns, he finished by connecting on just 12 of his next 30 for 113 yards and two interceptions. One of those was returned for a Beaver touchdown with just under two minutes left in the game.

It was Kelly’s first loss of the year, but his play in the four games since his return from a broken foot—along with the play of Mike Bercovici in Kelly’s absence—has only heightened the scrutiny of Kelly.

“He has gotten better, but I still don’t think he is running at the level that he was before,” Graham admitted. “I think a lot of that has to do with the injury and where he is at. Before the injury, I think he was moving a lot better and was able to execute the zone read stuff. I’m not sure he is 100% back yet, but that is something that is hard to evaluate because practice is one thing and the game is another.”

To add injury to insult, ASU lost key players throughout the frigid night. Safety Jordan Simone left in the second quarter and wide receiver Jaelen Strong missed the team’s final two drives. Those two, along with SPUR linebacker Laiu Moeakiola and center Nick Kelly, hope to be back in action this week against Washington State.

“We’ve got to get all of our guys healed up and hopefully have them all back and ready for Saturday,” Graham said.

Now ranked No. 13 in the new AP poll, ASU will look to get back on track on Saturday morning when they host Washington State with an early 11 a.m. kickoff.

The Cougars come to Tempe after a bye week. In their last game, they beat Oregon State on the road to improve their record to 3-7 overall and 2-5 in Pac-12 play. 

With head coach Mike Leach, WSU brings an aerial circus to the desert, now headlined by freshman quarterback Luke Falk. Falk replaced starter Connor Halliday when the latter suffered a season-ending injury against USC, and has been impressive. He’s completed just under 70 percent of his throws for 871 yards and seven touchdowns and just one interception, in just under two games since taking over for Halliday.

Facing such a dynamic yet one-sided scheme presents some challenges for the Sun Devils.

“We obviously have to score points whenever we have the opportunity,” said Graham. “We need to limit how many snaps we play on defense, and we need to be able to run the football and be able to control it. They are very explosive offensively and extremely capable of big plays and scoring points. This offense is very different from anything that we have seen so far, and that makes it a very different kind of week for us because they are not something that we are used to.”

The battle with the Cougars will also be the final home game for 11 Sun Devil seniors, and sending them out with a win is a key point of focus this week.

“Every year Senior Day is extremely important and we talk about how we have to honor these guys,” Graham said. “I am really proud of what our players have been able to accomplish during their time here, not just on the football field, but in every regard. Everything we are doing this week is with one focus, and it’s on our seniors and honoring them.”

Keeping up their dreams of a Pac-12 championship is as good an honor as any.