Penny makes paupers out of the Sun Devils in SDSU's 30-20 win

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Manny Wilkins throws a pass against San Diego State (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Manny Wilkins throws a pass against San Diego State (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

After Saturday's game, a reporter asked Arizona State defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood about facing Texas Tech, next week's opponent. After a quick answer, normally reserved ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins then jumped in.

"The season isn't over. That's like a 'your season's over' question," Wilkins said, with more fire in his tone than he's typically shown during his tenure as the team's starter.. "We just go to the next game and play ball. That's what we're here to do. Sometimes you're going to lose a game. It's going to happen, so you just have to go to the next game and that's it."

It was an unexpected turn on a few counts. Wilkins' remarks were certainly outside the scope of the question, and it is not normally the type of response you'd hear in Week 2 after a team suffered its first loss of the year.

However, it served to illustrate how uneasy the situation surrounding ASU's program are at the moment. 

After the six-game losing streak to end last season, questions about the future of head coach Todd Graham—and the overall trajectory of the Sun Devil football programs—hung over Tempe heading into this year. Those grew a little stronger after ASU eeked out a close win over New Mexico State last week, and Wilkins' reply seems to indicate that the pressure is creating some cracks in the foundation.

In Saturday's 30-20 loss, the Sun Devils made critical errors in all three phases of the game, and watched as SDSU's Rashaad Penny totaled 353 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in leading the Aztecs to their first win over ASU in 12 all-time meetings.

"Our guys showed heart, but it didn’t count on the score board," Graham said. "We have to do better than that."

They'll need to do much better immediately if the Sun Devils want to prevent the young season from going off the rails.

The warning signs were evident early.

ASU had SDSU pinned at their own five-yard line and facing a third-and-6 when Penny burst into open space and ran untouched for a 95-yard touchdown. During his run, Penny enjoyed watching himself head to the endzone on ASU's new video board.

"Once I saw nobody was running after me, I kind of slowed down," Penny admitted. "It's just exciting, I don’t even know what to say."

Arizona State's offense finally got on track later on, with Kalen Ballage scoring a touchdown on the final play of the first quarter, but the good feelings didn't last for long. On the ensuing kickoff, Penny ran it back 99 yards for his sixth career return touchdown.

"I just go out there and play football," Penny said. "I just go out there and help my team win games. Whatever happens, happens. That's my slogan."

SDSU tacked on a field goal later on, but ASU managed to jump back in the game late in the quarter. Wilkins connected with wide receiver N'Keal Harry on a five-yard touchdown pass to close the gap to 17-14. It was then that special teams would hurt ASU once again.

Backed up at their own six-yard line with under a minute left in the half, punter Michael Sleep-Dalton shanked a 12-yard punt. That field position allowed SDSU to kick a field goal to enter the half up 20-14.

"Obviously, that was a disaster tonight," Graham said of his special teams units. "We just have to do better. We beat ourselves."

Early in the second half, the Sun Devils were showing some signs of life. They had the ball in Aztec territory. Wilkins found wide receiver John Humphrey open deep and delivered an accurate throw, but Humphrey dropped the would-be touchdown. The drive stalled at the SDSU 42. ASU faced a fourth-and-7, and they opted to go for it.

"I was ready to go win the football game," Wilkins said of the call. "I thought we had a real opportunity."

However, his pass to Harry was off target, and ASU turned the ball over on downs. 

"I thought that if we would have had the opportunity to get up on them, they're not a team that plays well from behind just based off the offense that they run," Wilkins said. "So if would have been able to get up on them then it would have been a different ball game."

Given the short field, the Aztecs methodically marched down the field and into ASU territory. The Sun Devils seemed to have the drive stalled after a sack and penalty forced SDSU into a third-and-21. 

However, Penny slipped uncovered into the flat, caught the pass from quarterback Christian Chapman, and ran for a 33-yard touchdown.

"Defensively, we’re getting to the downs we want to, but then we’re giving up third-and-20 and third-and-15," Graham said. "We have to play better and coach better. That was a very poor effort."

"I felt like they thought they had us on the ropes," Penny said of the play. "We practice that play all the time and kind of knew it was coming. Our offensive coordinator said if that cornerback drops back and the free safety goes over the top of the middle, run it to the back side and nobody will be there."

It was a devastating 14-point swing, from the dropped touchdown to Penny's score, that symbolized the night.

A Wilkins fumble on the next possession set up another SDSU field goal early in the fourth quarter, and suddenly, ASU was on the ropes.

This time, they answered back, albeit in an improbable way.

Seven plays into the ensuing drive, the Sun Devils found themselves with a first-and-10 at the SDSU 26. However, a penalty and a pair of sacks set up a third-and-42. That was made slightly easier thanks to an SDSU offsides penalty, but the drive remained on life support. On the next play, Wilkins tossed up a pass that was brought down by Frank Darby for a 53-yard touchdown. 

The two-point conversion failed, and that was the last time the Sun Devils threatened in the game.

"We just have to do better," Graham said. "We beat ourselves. We have to give them credit, but you turn the football over, get holding penalties and get sacked.

"I thought the whole time we would come back and win."

They didn't, and now ASU is now 1-1 on the season. The Sun Devils now face a road trip to Lubbock, Texas for a showdown against Texas Tech and their potent offense next Saturday. After that, they open Pac-12 play with a difficult match up against resurgent Oregon team before a trip to Stanford. 

It is only going to get tougher from here.

After the game, an exasperated Graham said, "We have to find what our identity is."

Right now, it's of a team and program in serious trouble. 

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