ASU dominated in 30-21 loss to Eastern Michigan
A lifeless loss leaves the Sun Devils reeling
TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- As the final seconds ticked away on Saturday night, three Eastern Michigan players unfurled a black flag adorned with a Mid-American Conference logo atop pirate-style crossbones. As the trio ran onto the field, they turned to display it to the section of green-clad fans in the northeast corner of Sun Devil Stadium who had just witnessed the Eagles dominate Arizona State from start to finish.
Losing as a 20.5-point favorite—at home—is one thing. To do so in the fashion in which ASU did on Saturday night is another. Eastern Michigan physically dominated the Sun Devils, running for 305 yards, including 258 by Samson Evans, in a 30-21 win.
The loss dropped ASU to 1-2 on the season. It also leaves the reeling Sun Devils searching for answers as they enter Pac-12 play with a likely stretch of three consecutive ranked opponents.
“We’re all disappointed, and I’m probably more disappointed than anybody because I talked about it all week,” said ASU head coach Herm Edwards. “I did as much as I could do in my power to reach the team and say, ‘Don’t fall into this trap.’ And we did.”
“It’s not good. Period.”
The game, almost literally, got off on the wrong foot for ASU.
With EMU winning the coin toss and electing to receive, Sun Devil punter Eddie Czaplicki’s kickoff sailed out of bounds, drawing a penalty flag before a single second had run off the clock. From there, Eastern Michigan went to work, controlling the line of scrimmage as the Eagles marched downfield. ASU’s defense finally got a stop, but not before Jesus Gomez’s 27-yard field goal put the Eagles up 3-0.
A quick three-and-out by ASU gave the ball right back to EMU, and they again put together a methodical drive. Converting on three separate third downs, EMU drove 80 yards over 11 plays, the final one being a 4-yard touchdown run by Jaylon Jackson to give the Eagles a 10-0 lead.
“They physically dominated us on the offensive line,” Edwards said. “They knocked us off the ball and ran the football.”
Another ASU punt swiftly put the Eagles on the march again. However, ASU safety Kejuan Markham was able to intercept a Taylor Powell pass and return it deep inside EMU territory near the end of the quarter to give the Sun Devils life. Three plays later, ASU quarterback Emory Jones connected with wide receiver Andre Johnson for a three-yard touchdown that cut the deficit to 10-7.
The good will was short lived.
Eastern Michigan put together another productive drive, entering ASU territory when Powell was sacked by Anthonie Cooper, a play that knocked Powell from the game. But EMU’s offense did not slow down with backup quarterback Austin Smith taking over the reins. He had runs of 16 and 13 yards before connecting with receiver Hassan Beydoun for a 6-yard touchdown.
Now trailing 17-7 midway through the fourth quarter, ASU put together their best drive of the night. A Jones completion to Elijhah Badger for 29 yards got the Sun Devils moving, and nine plays later Jones ran for a 3-yard score to close the gap to 17-14.
Taking over with under three minutes left in the half, Smith made sure EMU did not surrender momentum. Keeping composed while evading pressure, Smith found Tanner Knue for a 42-yard gain to get to the ASU 10-yard line. Evans then took it the rest of the way to put the Eagles up 24-14 at halftime.
At the break, EMU had already racked up over 300 yards of offense, including 154 on the ground, nearly twice their season average. Offensively, ASU had managed just 46 yards on the ground. ASU was being bullied.
“We went into halftime knowing we had to get that solved,” Edwards said. “They did a good job of stopping us from running.”
Despite a holding call on the kickoff return, ASU looked as if they would respond to open the second half. On a third-and-1 from the EMU 36, Jones executed a sneak for two yards to move the chains. Or so ASU thought. Right tackle Des Holmes was flagged for a false start and pushed ASU back five yards. Jones was stopped for a short gain on the next play, and his fourth down pass fell incomplete. The first-down-negating penalty was one of nine on the night for the Sun Devils, and was one of several coming in key moments.
“I feel like we were shooting ourselves in the foot a lot,” said ASU guard LaDarius Henderson of the penalties. “It really affected us, and it affected the outcome.”
A 28-yard run by Evans opened the ensuing EMU drive, which ended with another Gomez field goal to increase the lead to 27-14.
“(Evans) did a good job of being patient,” Edwards said. “The big linemen did a nice job with him. He just found little seams and just kept going. He’s a big back. He didn’t go down easy.”
With two-score deficit and time dwindling, ASU continued to hurt themselves. The Sun Devils drove into EMU territory on the next drive, but after picking up a first down at the EMU 32, Badger was flagged for a personal foul that pushed the team back to midfield. The drive ended with a punt.
ASU made things interesting early in the fourth quarter when X Valladay found a hole and ran untouched for a 44-yard touchdown to close the gap to 27-21. Valladay accounted for 65 of the 80 yards on ASU’s scoring drive.
Having closed the gap to six with just under 11 minutes left, the Sun Devil defense knew EMU would run the ball to burn clock. Yet, they couldn’t stop Evans, who ran on seven straight plays for 68 total yards. Although ASU’s defense forced a short field goal to send the game to 31-20, the 10-play, 73-yard drive burned over six valuable minutes off the clock and demoralized the team and remaining fans.
A last-ditch ASU drive in the final minutes ended when tight end Jalin Conyers lost a fumble after a catch and run to the EMU 32-yard line.
Moments later, the MAC pirate flag flew over Frank Kush Field.
The Critical Moment
This week, we’ll call them the critical moments.
Trailing by just one-score and with the offense finally showing some life, ASU had a chance to salvage a win out of an otherwise ugly night. They just needed a stop. They knew Eastern Michigan would be running right at them. Time to load the box and stop the run.
Evans for 6. Evans for 3. Evans for 32. Evans for 9. Evans for 3. Evans for 13. Evans for 2.
Yards gained. Clock churned. Hope diminished. It was a statement drive from the Eagles that ended with a field goal to seal the upset win.
“They were going to run the football until we stopped them,” Edwards said, “and we didn’t stop them.”
Facing a defense coming off a 49-point showing against Louisiana, Saturday had the makings of a chance for the Sun Devil offense to find its groove before Pac-12 play. Instead, a sputtering passing game, dropped passes, lost battles in the trenches, and ill-timed penalties derailed their effort.
ASU was held to just 352 yards on the night by a defense that entered the night 112th in the FBS in total defense and 116th in yards per play. EMU’s defense ramped up their pressure on Saturday, and it paid off.
“They were probably a little more aggressive than what they had shown on film,” ASU offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas said. “They put some pressure on us and blitzed that extra guy here and there. For the most part, it went as we thought.”
Jones was uneven on the night, connected on some short throws but failing to capitalized on big-play chances. On three notable occasions, Jones had open receivers deep downfield. And on each pass, the connection came up just short.
“When you’re throwing it down the field and have an opportunity to make big plays, you need to capitalize on those,” Edwards said. “You got to catch those balls. It’s a different score if you catch those balls. They were hard catches, but when you’re in a game like this, you gotta make those catches.”
“That was part of the game plan going into it,” Thomas said of attacking deep. “We were trying to be aggressive and take our shots when we can. We had some opportunities there, but obviously, we have to connect.”
Jones completed 20 of his 32 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown. Badger led the team with seven catches for 88 yards, while Johnson had four grabs for 29 yards.
For the third straight game, Valladay topped 100 yards rushing, but other than his 44-yard touchdown, he was largely held in check. Daniyel Ngata continued to provide a spark in his limited chances, with 32 yards on three carries, and looks to be ready for a larger role. But the main concern was an offensive line that lost at the point of attack to a MAC defense and committed untimely penalties.
“They physically got after us on both sides of the football,” Edwards said.
“We couldn’t stop them from running. Bottom line,” Edwards said.
Sometimes, it’s just that simple. A team that had run 165 yards in their first two games manhandled ASU’s defense from start to finish on the way to 305 yards on the ground and 458 overall. All night long, ASU’s defensive front was gashed by Evans, Smith (55 yards), and the EMU run game. The Sun Devils knew the Eagles were going to run at them, yet were unable to stem the tide.
“It’s about gap responsibility,” Edwards said of his defense’s lapses. “When you don’t play in your gap, there’s some seams.”
ASU was also unable to get off the field. The Eagles converted nine of their first 10 third down opportunities (finishing 11 for 15), which allowed them to sustain drives, dominate time of possession, and keep ASU’s comeback bid at bay.
“I kept telling this team, ‘You better be ready for those guys because they are a physical, tough football team,’” Edwards said.
A week after notching 16 tackles vs Oklahoma State, linebacker Kyle Soelle had 18 against the Eagles. Cooper and Merlin Robertson notched ASU’s first two sacks of the season, but those were two of only four tackles for loss by the defense on the night, showing how EMU continued to win in the trenches.
In the week leading into the game, Edwards claimed that he continually warned his team that the EMU would come ready to play. The message was apparently not received.
The Question: What now?
When a game invites comparison’s to ASU’s infamous 2008 loss to UNLV, you know it’s a bad night. So what the hell happened?
“I don’t know if it’s coaching,” Edwards said. “It’s everything. It’s all of it. It’s everything. It’s coaches, players. When we lose, everybody loses. And we have to do a better job.”
During the week leading up to the game, Jones said he felt things were off for the Sun Devils.
“I kind of felt like the whole week, the team overall, we weren’t really locked into the details we usually are,” Jones said. “I feel like it showed up today. That’s something that we have to be aware of and realize and actually just get better.”
ASU now stands at 1-2. With their next three games coming against Utah, USC, and a resurgent Washington, a 1-5 start is not only possible, but perhaps likely. The Sun Devils have shown, especially in last week’s road loss to then-No. 11 Oklahoma State, that they have the talent to be able to compete with top teams. But can they marry that talent to a mindset conducive to success? The answer, one way or another, will be found within.
“We gotta fix it with the players we have,” Edwards said. “That’s how you gotta fix it. There’s no one else coming in the building.”
“We need to come out harder, and figure out what team we are going forward going into Pac-12 play,” said Henderson.
The Next Step
ASU opens up Pac-12 conference play next Saturday night when they host the Utah Utes. The 14th-ranked Utes, the defending Pac-12 champions, improved to 2-1 on the season with a 35-7 win over San Diego State on Saturday night.
The series between ASU and Utah has become a rivalry in recent years, with tough, physical games characterizes the battles. Last season, ASU held a 21-7 halftime lead over the Utes in Salt Lake City before Utah stormed back to win 35-21 as part of an 8-1 finish to their regular season.
The Extra Point
- ASU paid Eastern Michigan $1.5 million for the game, per USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz.
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