ASU’s offense falters in 15-14 loss to Stanford

The Cardinal comeback was gradual and grating
Arizona State wide receiver Elijhah Badger (2) cannot catch a pass in bounds in front of...
Arizona State wide receiver Elijhah Badger (2) cannot catch a pass in bounds in front of Stanford cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly (17) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)(Jeff Chiu | AP)
Published: Oct. 22, 2022 at 7:18 PM MST
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PALO ALTO, CA (3TV/CBS 5) -- They were so close. Just a couple of inches away.

But on an afternoon already full of frustrations for Arizona State, there was room for one more. A desperation fourth-down pass that was caught near the goal line, which would have allowed for a chip-shot field goal for the win, was ruled incomplete upon review. Fitting.

ASU’s 14-6 halftime lead was slowly eroded as their offense fell dormant in the second half. While the Sun Devil defense did not break, they continually bent in field goal range for Stanford’s Joshua Karty to connect on all five of his attempts in a 15-14 Cardinal win.

It’s believed to be ASU’s first loss in a game in which they did not allow a touchdown since 1984.

“It’s a bad feeling, giving up zero touchdowns and losing the game,” said ASU cornerback Ro Torrence.

The come-from-ahead loss drops ASU to 2-5 on the season, 1-3 in Pac-12 play, and further dims the path to postseason eligibility.

The Ohana

“We held them to 15 points. We should win those football games.” - Shaun Aguano

The Result

In front of a sparse crowd on hand for Stanford’s homecoming game, the Cardinal jumped out to an early lead after ASU went three-and-out to open the game. Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee connected with three different targets to get the Cardinal into ASU territory, but the Sun Devil defense eventually held to force the first Karty field goal.

ASU’s offense then kicked into gear, led by three connections between quarterback Emory Jones and receiver Elijhah Badger. The first picked up a third-and-13, the second drew a pass interference flag, and the third gained 30 yards to the Stanford 15. On the next play, X Valladay ran in to give ASU a 7-3 lead.

McKee’s passing answered right back, but yet again, ASU’s defense held enough to force a field goal to conclude an 11-play drive.

The Jones-to-Badger connection then struck again, with Badger hauling in a well thrown 39-yard pass for a touchdown to extend the Sun Devil lead to 14-6.

ASU had a chance to extend the lead before halftime, but Carter Brown’s 42-yard field goal try with just under a minute left fell short, a miss that would factor in heavily later on.

That promise and potency of ASU’s offense fizzled once the second half began. The Sun Devils punted on both of their possessions in the third quarter, while Stanford added another field goal to cut their deficit to 14-9.

The lead was further trimmed on Karty’s fourth field goal of the day on the second play of the fourth quarter. ASU’s offense finally appeared to get back on track on the ensuing drive, with an 11-yard run by Jones and a 20-yard pass to Badger getting ASU into Cardinal territory. But the while the drive soon stalled, the punt was downed at the Stanford 1-yard line.

Undaunted, McKee led the Cardinal on methodical drive, picking up three third downs along the way. By the time ASU’s defense held, forcing Stanford into a 47-yard field goal, 15 plays had been run and the Cardinal took a 15-14 lead.

“It’s very frustrating knowing that you can get off the field but don’t get off the field,” said Torrence of the third-down issues. “We’re just prolonging their drives and giving them more opportunities to score the ball.”

ASU’s next drive went nowhere, but with time dwindling, the Sun Devil defense was able to force a punt on Stanford’s next possession. Arizona State would get a chance to steal a win.

Jones and the Sun Devils took over at their 32-yard line with 1:28 left. Three plays later, facing a fourth down, Jones found Bryan Thompson for 30-yards to get to the Stanford 34. However, a sack on the next play pushed ASU out of field goal range, and they soon faced a do-or-die fourth-and-19. Jones lofted a ball downfield to an open Badger, who made a great adjustment on the pass and was ruled to have caught it then stepped out of bounds near the goal line with three seconds left.

But upon replay review, the adjustments needed from the off-target throw forced Badger’s toes to be just out of bounds.

Ball game.

The Critical Moment

The near-catch by Badger will get the attention, but there were many moments during the game that could have swung the result the other way. A conservative third down playcall early in the fourth quarter was among the most impactful.

After two big plays began their drive with a bang, ASU faced that a third-and-5 from the Stanford 39. A conversion would extend the drive and get them within field goal range. But instead of a pass or a call to utilize Jones’ mobility, ASU instead a run up the middle by Valladay that was stuffed for a loss. On came the punt team.

Aguano defended the decision after the game, adding that had they were prepared to go for it on fourth down had they gained a few yards.

“It was an RPO that we handed off, and they came up and played,” said Aguano. “We can go back and second guess that we should have gone for it. I think analytics says fourth-and-two to go for it. We didn’t get those, and we got stopped behind.”

After the punt was downed at the 1-yard line, Stanford embarked on what proved to be the game-winning drive.

The Offense

Aguano put it succinctly: “We made some big plays, but we never finished. We always stalled.”

ASU averaged seven yards per play in the first half. They showed a good balance in passing and attacking on the ground. But in the second half, it all fell apart, and Aguano feels it began in the trenches.

“I didn’t think we dominated the line to get ahead of the sticks,” he said. “We were in second-and-longs trying to play catch up the whole time.”

Jones’ play will receive the brunt of the scrutiny (more on that in a section below), but he was hardly the only person worthy or criticism. The numbers are not bad on first glance: 14-of-25, 227 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and 27 yards rushing. But he misfired on some passes, and some of his decisions in the second half were questionable.

“I thought Emory’s play was solid,” Aguano said. “I’m going to go back and look at the progressions and look at his decision on some RPOs. I thought he did pretty well. He put the ball in places we needed it to be and receivers made some catches.”

The team also didn’t appear as aggressive in the second half, something that did not go unnoticed by the team’s star wide receiver.

“I think the playcalling was just a little different in the second half,” Badger said. “I have no clue. I just did my job.”

Badger notched the first 100-yard game of his career, gaining 118 yards on six catches. He has emerged as one of the Pac-12′s best, but the dispersal of targets in the passing game was a concern. Other than Thompson (five) and Gio Sanders (six), no Sun Devil saw more than two targets. No tight end saw a single target.

The ground game started well, but like everything else, vanished in the second half. Valladay finished with 76 yards, while Daniyel Ngata had 25 on seven carries.

Up front, ASU’s line struggled, two weeks after a strong showing.

“I don’t think we dominated up front like we did against Washington,” Aguano said.

Taken together, it was a messy, uneven, and familiar showing from a talented group of players that are still trying to operate effectivity. From scheme, to playcalling, to execution, to starting jobs, Saturday’s showing is of the type that should bring serious questions to all aspects.

The Defense

“Fifteen points should win football games,” Aguano said bluntly after the game.

He’s right. A Pac-12 that keeps an opponent out of the endzone should win the game most of the time. It was a winning effort, a feat made more impressive given that the Sun Devil defense had to play 83 snaps.

But ASU safety Jordan Clark, who notched an interception, felt that the bend the defense showed negated the lack of breaks.

“We didn’t give up any touchdowns, but we gave up 15 points, and we lost,” Clark said. “It’s good to finish drives, but you have to start drives. There were some early stops we could have gotten that I think give the offense better field position.

“It’s not bend-don’t-break. It’s never been any of that s***. We have to be great the whole time. We can’t just be great at the end.”

Beyond keeping Stanford out of the endzone, the Sun Devils showed greater success in bringing pressure at the Cardinal. ASU matched a season-high with six tackles for loss and notched a season-best four sacks.

“I wanted more pressure,” Aguano said. “I wanted us to attack. I wanted to make sure that we took it to them.”

Mission accomplished. But ASU continued to struggle on third downs. They entered the week ranked 125th in the country in third down conversions, and they allowed Stanford to convert nine of 19 chances, including three on the game-winning drive.

“Did we play good enough to win? I thought we did. We gotta be better,” Aguano said.

The Question: Time for a quarterback change?

It was the hot topic for the last two weeks, and that heat has become an outright inferno.

After Trenton Bourguet filled in for an injured Jones and threw three touchdowns in the upset win over No. 21 Washington, calls for Bourguet to assume the starting quarterback job began. Following Saturday’s loss, it’s time to wonder whether the offense would be better served with Bourguet at the helm.

Aguano said that he never gave consideration to making a change during the game.

“I didn’t, because I didn’t think Emory was playing bad,” he said. “So I didn’t. I try to never second guess myself in those decisions. I told my guys that I’m going to make the best decision I think for them to win the football game. We came up short, so I guess I’ll take the blame for all of that.”

The Sun Devils with Jones as the starter have had their moments of success during the year. They’ve also had plenty of stretches like the second half tonight where nothing works. After the game, Badger said things are still clicking into place.

“I still feel pretty good about him,” said Badger of Jones. “I’m still getting comfortable, still getting there.”

But the fact remains that the season is already more than half over, and that the best the offense has looked all year was during the two-plus quarters with Bourguet leading the attack.

With his chance to impress enough to earn the full time job dwindling―as well as the team’s prospects for a bowl bid―it’s fair to wonder whether Aguano will determine that the “best decision” for his team is to make a change.

The Next Step

ASU will continue on the road next week. The Sun Devils will head to Boulder to face the struggling Colorado Buffaloes, who entered the weekend 1-5 overall.

The Extra Point

  • Badger’s 100-yard game was the first by a Sun Devil since Ricky Pearsall did so against UCLA last October.