Old habits doom ASU in 34-17 road loss to No. 11 Oklahoma State

Penalties and third downs kept the Devils from an upset win
Oklahoma State defensive end Collin Oliver (30) sacks Arizona State quarterback Emory Jones (5)...
Oklahoma State defensive end Collin Oliver (30) sacks Arizona State quarterback Emory Jones (5) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Stillwater, Okla. At left is Arizona State offensive lineman Emmit Bohle.(AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)(Brody Schmidt | AP)
Published: Sep. 10, 2022 at 11:17 PM MST
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TEMPE (3TV/CBS 5) -- Old habits die hard. And if you can’t kill them, they can end up killing you.

On the road facing the No. 11 team in the nation, Arizona State knew they had to play a clean game in order to pull off the upset. While they put up a good fight, particularly on defense, self-inflicted errors—the kind that derailed their 2021 season—were enough to allow Oklahoma State to pull away for a 34-17 win.

“A lot of little things came up in this game,” said ASU head coach Herm Edwards.

Despite a rash of penalties and major struggles on third downs, the Sun Devils pulled to within three points early in the fourth quarter. But a pair of touchdown passes from Spencer Sanders sealed the win and handed ASU their first defeat of the year. Although they entered the game as double-digit underdogs, the Sun Devils are left with a feeling that they let a golden opportunity for a statement victory slip away.

“You have to grow from this as a football team,” Edwards said. “There’s something we have to find.”

The Hermism

“You can’t make those little mistakes. They get you, man. They get you.”

The Result

The upset bid got off to a promising start.

After forcing an Oklahoma State punt on the game’s opening drive, ASU immediately entered Cowboy territory with a 42-yard run by X Valladay on the Sun Devils’ first play. An 18-yard reception by Charles Hall IV and another 11 yards from Valladay moved the Devils into the redzone. But after Jones’ third down pass sailed over tight end Messiah Swinson, ASU had to settle for a 27-yard field goal from Carter Brown to take a 3-0 lead.

Things then settled into a defensive battle. The team’s traded a pair of punts each before ASU linebacker Kyle Soelle intercepted a Sanders pass. However, ASU was unable to take advantage of the game’s first turnover and punted. The stalemate was broken early in the second quarter. Facing a third-and-1, Valladay was hit in the backfield and fumbled. Oklahoma State recovered at the ASU 37, and five plays later scored on a three-yard run by Dominic Richardson.

“Good teams capitalize on that,” Edwards said of his team’s mistakes.

Another stalled ASU drive led to a good punt from Eddie Czaplicki that pinned the Cowboys inside their 5-yard line. But after limited rest due to the Sun Devil offense’s ineffectiveness, the ASU defense showed some strains from the fact-paced OSU offense. The Cowboys marched 96 yards over 12 plays and scored again on a 6-yard run by Sanders.

“We did a good job at first,” Soelle said of the tempo. “A little bit later in the game, the hurry up kind of gets you.”

With the final minutes of the half ticking away, ASU had a chance to put some points on the board, but their seventh failed third down conversion forced a punt which Czaplicki shanked for only 19 yards. The Sun Devil defense was able to hold OSU to a field goal, sending the game to the break with the Cowboys up 17-3.

ASU had gained 78 yards on their first possession of the game, but managed just 80 over the next seven possessions. Despite the struggles, especially on third downs, ASU offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas felt his unit was ready to turn things around in the second half.

“I was pleased with their mentality coming into halftime,” Thomas said. “We felt like we were in a good place.”

The Sun Devils needed a spark, and Gio Sanders delivered. On the second play of the half, he caught a Jones pass and raced 73 yards to the OSU 2-yard line. Valladay punched it in two plays later to close the gap to 17-10.

“Our mentality was to go score the ball,” Jones said. “We came out and did that.”

With renewed momentum, ASU was poised to tie the game on their next possession. Jones led the offense to to OSU 30, but the drive stalled, and Brown’s 48-yard field goal, with rain starting to fall, was no good.

Oklahoma State then capitalized. A 43-yard catch by Braydon Johnson, aided by a slip in coverage by ASU cornerback Timarcus Davis, got OSU deep in ASU territory. Facing a first-and-goal at their 5-yard line, the Sun Devil defense was able to hold, forcing a field goal that limited the Cowboys’ lead to 20-10.

Down two scores and with time running out, ASU did something late in the third quarter that they had not done all night to that point: Converted a third down. A 10-yard catch by Sanders on a third-and-6 extended the drive. Facing a third-and-18 almost immediately, Jones connected with Elijhah Badger for 20. Valladay sprinted to 38 on the first play of the fourth quarter, and Badger then hauled in a 21-yard touchdown from Jones to make it a 20-17 game with 14:25 to go.

“He’s trending in the right direction,” Thomas said of Badger. “I think he can be a big piece of what we’re trying to get done.”

The positive momentum was undone almost immediately. Czaplicki’s kickoff went out of bounds, setting up OSU at the 35. A 20-yard strike from Sanders to Richardson got the Cowboys just inside ASU territory, where they capped the drive with a flea-flicker touchdown pass from Sanders to Bryson Green.

ASU’s offense responded to that score with a three-and-out.

“We got to stay on the field to help our defense,” said Thomas.

“You can’t just keep asking your defense to go out there over, and over, and over,” Edwards said. “You have to play complimentary football.”

Now ahead two scores in the fourth, OSU took over and slowed the pace but remained effective. They picked up a pair of first downs, but ASU appeared to have OSU stopped on an incompletion on third-and-10. However, ASU was flagged for roughing the passer, allowing the drive to continue.

“A couple of (ASU’s 10 penalties) hurt us,” Edwards said. “A couple of them on the quarterback. On third down, we touch him as he’s running out of bounds, and you give him a first down.”

Four plays later, ASU lost track of running back Ollie Gordon, who caught a wide-open 14-yard touchdown pass to seal the win.

“Magically, we blew two coverages,” Edwards lamented. “Just let the guys go and gave them some easy scores.”

The Critical Moment

For much of the night, ASU’s defense was plugging the dam, and with each successive three-and-out by the Sun Devil offense, the pressure increased. To their credit, they held firm in the face of Oklahoma State’s unrelenting tempo. But after ASU closed the gap to 20-17 early in the fourth, the dam burst.

Sensing a possible kill-shot opportunity, the Cowboys reached into their bag of tricks. They ran a flea flicker, and the Sun Devils lost track of wide receiver Bryson Green, who slipped by uncovered as he hauled in a 31-yard score.

“The defense got fatigued about midway through the fourth quarter,” Edwards said. “Mentally, we got exhausted a couple of times and mentally blew a couple of coverages.”

With little help throughout the night, the ASU defense could only hold out for so long.

“It wears on you later in the game,” said Soelle of OSU’s tempo. “We’re a well-conditioned team, but they really have it up tempo.”

The Offense

It started and ended on third down.

While ASU reeled off some big plays during the game, the inability to sustain drives ruined any upset chances. The Sun Devils converted just two of 13 attempts, one week after making just four of 13 against NAU, an FCS opponent. A 23% conversion rate won’t get it done.

“A lot of it had to do with first and second downs, getting behind the chains,” Edwards said. “On the road, a pretty good defense, they’re rushing you, it’s hard to convert those. Gotta do a better job.”

Oklahoma State boasts one of the nation’s best and deepest defensive lines. ASU remained committed to the run, even when finding little success.

“We’re going to try and be stubborn running the ball,” Thomas said. “We felt like we had some opportunities there. If you take a step back and convert on some third downs, that opens up some other things.”

On the night, ASU ran for 131 yards on 37 attempts, with Valladay leading the way with 118 yards on 22 carries. But 80 of those yards came on just two plays, and for much of the night, ASU found themselves in difficult third down situations after short early down runs. On the team’s other 35 rushing attempts, they gained just 51 yards, a paltry average of 1.5 yards-per-carry.

“Just because they stop you running doesn’t mean you stop running and abandon the run, especially on the road,” Edwards said. “When we had to go back and pass, they got pressure, and they got to the quarterback a couple of times.”

When ASU dropped back to pass, the formidable Cowboy pass rush made things difficult for Jones.

“I felt like it definitely impacted the game,” Jones said of the pressure from OSU. “I had to speed up some of my reads to make sure I got through them. I feel like I gave up on a couple of plays and just threw it away instead of making a play out of it with my legs.”

“They gave us some problems throughout the front, not only in the run game, but in pass protection,” Thomas said.

Jones completed 12 of his 24 throws for 223 yards and a touchdown.

“I thought Emory did a nice job,” Edwards said. “The offense got some big plays in the passing game. But you can’t play from behind on the road against a good team.”

Badger posted career highs with six catches and 91 yards, and spurred by his 73-yard reception, Sanders also had a career-best 94 yards on his three catches. Yet other than that, the passing game was limited. Only three other Sun Devils caught, each a single reception, with Hall’s 18 yarder on the opening possession the longest.

Yet despite the struggles, pieces are in place for an improved attack for the rest of the season. Jones has shown dual threat ability, Valladay has topped 100 yards in each of his games as a Sun Devil, and Badger’s emergence could be a key part in stretching the field and keeping defenses from loading the box. With new pieces in a new scheme, more game reps should lead to better results in the view of the coaching staff.

“I think this offense is coming together,” Edwards said. “It’s a work in the making.”

But for any of that work to pay off, improvement on third downs must happen.

The Defense

A glance at the box score would not tell the full story of how ASU’s defense performed: 34 points allowed and 465 yards surrendered.

In the fourth quarter, ASU had a chance to win a game over a Top 15 on the road, and that was because of the performance of their defense.

“We were never intimidated by them,” Soelle said. “We never feel like we’re out of the game. We’re always going to compete all four quarters.”

Soelle led the way with 16 tackles, including eight solo, and had an interception. But the unit simply wore down at the end of each half, allowing OSU to score 17 points in the second quarter and 14 in the fourth. Against an offense as talented and fast-paced as the Cowboys, it was simply unsustainable.

“There’s a point where you keep putting your defense out there without scoring points and it becomes hard,” Edwards said. The defense did a good job in the first half of holding them, holding them, holding them.”

And then there were the self-inflicted errors. Of ASU’s 10 penalties, eight came on the defense, with several bailing OSU out of failed third downs on eventual scoring drives.

“The errors you make, you have to learn from them,” Edwards said.

And yet, despite the fatigue, despite the penalties, despite the hostile atmosphere, ASU had a chance in the end. With the sting of defeat still fresh, that’s a silver lining.

The Question: Can they stop hurting themselves?

After the game, Edwards told the media, “Talent-wise, skill-wise, I thought we matched up OK against them.”

At first blush, it may seem like a reach, considering Oklahoma State came in ranked No. 11 in the nation, while ASU was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12. But watching the game unfold on Saturday night, Edwards was right. ASU had a chance late in the game to get a signature win in Stillwater. While they faced a talented opponent in OSU, they also faced their own mistakes.

Same old story.

The high hopes of the 2021 season went unrealized in large part due to the same issues on display in Stillwater: Penalties, execution errors, and sloppiness. ASU went relatively mistake-free in last week’s win over NAU, but against much better competition on Saturday, they reverted to last year’s form.

If this is simply the character of this team, there will be more almost-had-thems and frustrating Saturday nights in the months ahead. If the Sun Devils can, somehow, reverse this trend and lead with their talent instead of their miscues, then some positive surprises could be in store.

“There’s a lot of growing up this team took today,” said Edwards.

The time for rhetoric has passed, and the time for remedies is now.

The Next Step

ASU will look to rebound next Saturday night when they host Eastern Michigan. The Eagles are 1-1 on the season following Saturday’s 49-21 road loss to Louisiana in which the Eagles gave up 28 points in the fourth quarter.

Kickoff is set for 8 p.m., with TV coverage on Pac-12 Network.

The Extra Points

  • Valladay eclipsed 4,000 career all-purpose yards in the first quarter.
  • Jones now has over 5,000 yards of total offense in his career: 3,722 passing, 1,303 rushing
  • ASU has rushed for at least 100 yards as a team in 20 straight regular season games.