ASU squanders lead, falls to UCLA 44-37

Posted: Updated:
UCLA running back Bolu Olorunfunmi runs against the ASU defense (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) UCLA running back Bolu Olorunfunmi runs against the ASU defense (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Beneath the concourse of the iconic Rose Bowl, in a small, out-of-the-way room, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham stepped behind a podium.

The task at hand was unpleasant, but he’d had plenty of practice doing it lately. The frustration he felt was clear. As he spoke to reporters, there was a tinge of resignation in his voice.

"They made the plays when they needed to,” he said, "and we didn't."

Graham had just coached his Sun Devils to a disappointing 44-37 loss to the UCLA Bruins. It was a game in which the outcome defied the logic of the statistics. It was becoming a Sun Devil standard.

ASU gained nearly 600 yards, 294 of those on the ground. They ran the 20 more plays than UCLA and had possession for nearly 13 more minutes than the Bruins. The Sun Devils even scored a touchdown off of a blocked punt.

Yet instead of an inspiring win, ASU heads back to Tempe with a deflating loss that evens their record at 5-5 on the year— 4-3 in Pac-12 play —and turns up the heat on Graham’s job status with two games left in the regular season.

It also keeps up a maddening trend for the program: For every step forward, like their victory last week over Colorado, ASU responds with a step backwards.

Perhaps making Saturday’s outcome all the more frustrating were the opportunities the Sun Devils had the opportunity to put the game away early.

ASU jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter following a N’Keal Harry touchdown reception and a Demario Richard scoring run. With under two minutes left in the opening quarter, ASU’s defense had forced a punt, and the Sun Devils had a chance to go up by three scores. An already reeling Bruins team was on the ropes.

However, on the first play of the drive, Manny Wilkins’ pass was deflected and intercepted by Nate Meadors, who returned the ball 27 yards for a touchdown. UCLA was back in the game.

"Completely changed the game,” said Graham of the play. “That can't happen. That was very, very poor."

From killshot to lifeline in a matter of moments.

"We had every opportunity to remain in the lead and extend the lead, and we just didn't get it done tonight,” Harry said.

The Bruins would soon tie the game on a Josh Rosen touchdown run that capped a 73-yard drive. But ASU, at least then, had the correct reply.

UCLA entered the game with the second-worst rushing defense in the nation, and ASU attacked that weakness on the ensuing drive. Led by the backfield tandem of Richard and Kalen Ballage, the Sun Devils ran on all 10 plays of the possession, the final of which was a 16-yard scamper by Wilkins that ended with him hurdling over a defender and into the endzone.

"We had the opportunity to really squelch them,” Graham said.

The drive was the purest distillation of the team’s gameplan. Hammer away at the weak UCLA run defense, maintain possession, and keep the ball away from Rosen. At halftime, ASU had rushed for 203 yards.

"We were running the ball,” Graham said. “Coming in, my whole deal was tempo, and we did that in the first half.”

The Bruins would answer back before the break with a pair of field goals that trimmed ASU’s halftime lead to 21-20. With Rosen and the Bruin offense heating up after the slow start, the Sun Devils would need to answer back strongly in the third quarter.

They appeared on their way by quickly taking the opening possession to midfield, but ASU soon faced a fourth down and five from the UCLA 41-yard line. Sensing a chance to regain momentum, Graham opted to go for it.

"We thought we could make 4 yards there,” he said. “I felt like we were having difficulty stopping them."

Unfortunately for ASU, Wilkins was forced to scramble from the pocket and was stopped short. UCLA now had the ball, great field position, and momentum.

They wasted little time in driving the length of the field, with Soso Jamabo scoring on a 21-yard run, giving UCLA their first lead of the night at 27-21.

Jamabo’s scoring run was part of 192 yards on the ground by UCLA, who entered the game ranked 108th in the nation in rushing offense averaging just over 122 yards per game.

"We gave up too much against the run,” Graham said. “We needed to make them one-dimensional, and we didn't. They had some big runs on us."

Big runs, and big passes, in fact. ASU allowed 11 UCLA plays of over 20 yards on the night, including two for over 50 yards.

“As a defense, we just didn't execute,” said ASU defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood.

Following Jamabo’s touchdown, ASU was able to drive the ball to the UCLA 11-yard line. Once there, they sputtered and were forced into a short Brandon Ruiz field goal.

UCLA would then make ASU pay for their redzone failure.

A blown coverage on a third down allowed UCLA’s Bolu Olorunfunmi to take a screen for 56 yards, and he followed that two plays later with a 2-yard touchdown run.

“Our offensive line did a great job tonight in blocking and just being outstanding,” Olorunfunmi said. “A lot of my success is their success.”

Now down 10 points, the Sun Devils needed something, anything to go their way. They got it, and in typically weird Pac-12 fashion.

They were able to move the ball deep within UCLA territory, but were again stopped short and forced into a field goal. After all, trading touchdowns for field goals never works out. Graham’s frustration with the redzone playcalling was clear after the game.

“We should have run the ball into the endzone every time we got into the redzone,” Graham said. “We'd get behind in the count, throw the ball, and kick field goals."

With the third quarter dwindling away, ASU needed a jolt. They found one with their special teams.

ASU’s Malik Lawal blocked a Bruin punt on the next drive, and Eno Benjamin was able to return it for the score. In just a matter of minutes, the 10-point deficit was gone and the game was tied. ASU had some hope.

But UCLA had Rosen.

Returning after missing the previous week with a concussion, Rosen continued to show why he’s expected to be a high pick in the next NFL draft. He guided UCLA down the field to end the third quarter, and on the first play of the fourth quarter, he fired a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Lasley.

“It felt great to be back,” said Rosen, who threw for 381 yards. “It took a second to get in the groove in the first half, but once we started moving, we worked well.”

UCLA retook the lead, and they never looked back.

ASU’s offense failed to generate a consistent attack in the game's remaining minutes, and a last ditch onside kick attempt failed.

"There's no reason why we shouldn't have won this game,” Smallwood said. “Truth of the matter, we didn't say this too often this season. This is a tough loss, but one we have to bite, to swallow.”

For ASU, the loss derails the momentum they generated after last week’s win and leaves them a win short of bowl eligibility.

“The season is not over,” Smallwood said. “We've got two games left, two games we plan on winning. We got to go to work. Get things corrected."

ASU will travel to face Oregon State next Saturday before ending the regular season on Nov. 25 against rival Arizona. Two wins and optimism about the program, and Graham’s future can be restored. A pair of losses, or even a split, will leave the team on unstable and uncertain ground.

Back to square one, where the only consistency is inconsistency.

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.