ASU’s rally falls short in 50-36 loss to No. 10 UCLA
A dreadful defensive display derails the Devils
TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- During the week of preparation for Saturday’s game against No. 10 UCLA, Arizona State interim head coach Shaun Aguano continually stressed the importance of playing to the final whistle.
That message was received. ASU rallied from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter to close to within six late in the game.
“We proved that to everybody,” said ASU quarterback Trenton Bourguet of the team’s resolve. “We’re not going to give up. We’re going to fight to the very last whistle.”
However, the message about defending the run was not as well received. UCLA ran for 402 yards on the night―without the services of the Pac-12′s leading rusher Zach Charbonnet, who did not play―powering the Bruins to a 50-36 victory.
“I take all the blame for not preparing us defensively and offensively for this game,” Aguano said. “It’s not on (the players). It’s on me.”
The loss drops ASU to 3-6 on the season and 2-4 in Pac-12 play. The Sun Devils’ postseason hopes are hanging on by a thread, as the team now needs to win their three remaining games in order to make a bowl. It will be a daunting challenge, but like they showed in Saturday’s loss, Aguano’s Devils will go down swinging.
“We’re going to play until we can’t play no more,” said Aguano. “It doesn’t matter if we have 20 guys on our team or 50. We’re going to play hard. These next three games, we’re going to play hard.”
“That’s absolutely inexcusable.” - Shaun Aguano
ASU’s defense peaked on the game’s first play when UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s pass was intercepted by safety Chris Edmonds. However, ASU was unable to fully capitalize, as the drive stalled inside the Bruin 10-yard line forcing the Sun Devils to settle for a short field goal by Carter Brown.
Shaking off the turnover, UCLA’s offense went on the attack. Thompson-Robinson found Logan Loya for a 22-yard gain before Kaz Allen ran for 34 more. Three plays later, Thompson-Robinson was able to scramble for a 14-yard score.
ASU responded with their best drive of the half. Bourguet connected on three first down passes to get to the redzone. X Valladay scored on a three-yard run, but a holding call on Isaia Glass pushed the Sun Devils back and negated the score. One play later, facing a fourth-and-goal from the 3, ASU went for it, and Bourguet found tight end Messiah Swinson for the touchdown.
The 10-7 lead was short-lived. UCLA reeled off gains of 12 and 15 yards before a 42-yard reception by Allen got the Bruins on the doorstep. Thompson-Robinson tossed a touchdown on the next play to a wide open Keegan Jones to take a lead the Bruins would never relinquish.
After their fast start, the Sun Devil offense went dormant. ASU punted on three consecutive drives in the first half, and their final series before halftime ended with a sack before a Hail Mary pass could be thrown.
“It was my fault that we had to play catch up, because I didn’t think I did a good job for three series in the second quarter to stay with them,” said Aguano. “Then we played catch up the whole time.”
Meanwhile, UCLA continue to extend their lead. The Bruins showed their quick-strike ability with a 5-play, 91-yard drive that included gains of 33, 11, 33, and then a 10-yard run by Jones for the score. UCLA then showed they could be more methodical, putting together a 16-play, 90-yard drive that featured four third-down conversions, including two of over 11 yards. Thompson-Robinson threw his second touchdown pass of the half to cap the drive, a 9-yard strike to Michael Ezeike to put the Bruins up 28-10 at the break
The Bruins kept things going in the third quarter. After ASU went three-and-out to open the half, UCLA leaned on their run game and the third-down passing of Thompson-Robinson to move down the field. On a third-and-goal from the ASU 4-yard line, Thompson-Robinson evaded pressure and ran for a score.
Trailing 35-10 early in the second half, ASU showed off some resolve. After driving into Bruin territory, the Sun Devils faced a fourth-and-4, where Bourguet connected with Gio Sanders for the conversion. On the next play, Bourguet lofted a pass to the back corner of the endzone that Elijhah Badger snagged with one hand for the touchdown.
“We played our hearts out,” Valladay said.
The good vibes were again fleeting. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Allen ran 75 yards for a touchdown. On the sideline, the defense tried to rally themselves as they continued to get gashed.
“Just have pride and fight back,” said Edmonds. “Let’s not just get pushed around. We just have to fight back.”
The offense fought back on the next drive, marching 75 yards over 10 plays, capped by a 1-yard scoring run by Valladay. Heading into the fourth quarter, ASU trailed 42-25. On the third play of the quarter, the Sun Devil defense made a play, as Joe Moore recovered a Thompson-Robinson fumble. It marked ASU’s first recovery of the season, but like the game-opening interception, the Sun Devils could not maximize their opportunity, settling for another short Brown field goal.
Continuing the recent momentum, ASU made just their second third-down stop of the night to force a Bruin punt. Bourguet made three big throws on the drive for gains of 17, 16, and 23, setting up Valladay’s second score of the half. A two-point conversion attempt was successful, cutting the Bruin lead to 42-36
“We came back in the second half, made adjustments, and fought all the way to the end,” Bourguet said.
With 6:18 left in the game, ASU had a chance to steal a huge win. They just needed one more defensive stop.
They didn’t get it.
UCLA ran the ball seven straight times, including gains of 20 and 23 yards. Colson Yankoff scored from a yard out to seal the win.
“We were one stop away from taking a lead,” Bourguet said. “We just have to execute a bit better earlier in the game so it doesn’t have to come to that point.”
The Critical Moments
ASU’s third down defense has been terrible all year. Entering this week’s games, only two teams (Florida and Colorado) had worse conversion rates than the Sun Devils’ 48.3 percent. That mark now stands at 51.1% after ASU allowed UCLA to move the chains on nine of their 11 chances.
Four key conversions came on UCLA’s final scoring drive of the first half. Still only trailing by 11, and with the ball coming to them to open the third quarter, a stop by ASU could set them up to re-take the lead.
- Backed up on their 14-yard line, UCLA faced a third-and-6. Thompson-Robinson found Allen for 10 yards.
- Facing a third-and-11 at their 33, Thompson-Robinson found Jake Bobo for 15 yards.
- On a third-and-2 just inside ASU territory, Yankoff ran for seven yards.
- With a chance to force a field goal on a third-and-14, ASU allowed Thompson-Robinson to run for 18.
Four chances. Four defensive failures. It’s proven to be a critical weakness.
“We get them in third-and-12, and they’re running stop routes at 14 yards, but we’re in the area and not attached to somebody,” Aguano said. “That’s a problem. I need to get back with the defensive coaches and see what we need to do about that. They’re working hard on first and second, but third down we’re not getting it done. A lot of times those stops we could have got puts us in the lead.”
The surface numbers look good. With Bourguet making his second start since taking over the starting job, and Aguano in his second game as the playcaller, the 36 points and 468 yards are solid figures. Teams should win games with that level of production.
However, a lack of success on third downs prevented the Sun Devils from keeping up with the potent Bruin offense. Through the first three quarters, ASU moved the sticks on just three of their 10 chances on third down. A major factor was the Bruins success in bringing pressure.
“They did a great job of bringing some pressure and trying to get me out of my game,” Bourguet said. “A couple of times they got some good licks on me, but I just have to stay in the pocket and trust my reads.”
While the offensive line had its struggles in both run blocking and pass protection, Aguano took the blame for the issues.
“The thing with Trenton, that’s the way to stop him, you’re going to have to bring that pressure,” said Aguano said. “He does a good job of hitting on the hot routes. I put him in the situation to get hit because I didn’t take care of the efficiency on first down. I made the mistake as a playcaller.”
In part due to the pressure that sacked him three times, Bourguet was not as sharp on Saturday than he was last week against a bad Colorado defense. But he showed toughness and poise in helping keep his team in the game throughout the night. He completed 38 of 49 throws for 349 yards. The completions tie him for the third-most in a game in school history.
“I missed some easy throws that I wish I could take back,” said Bourguet. “They came out with a couple more blitzes than we anticipated. At the end of the day, I have to play better and not allow them to separate that much.”
Ten of those completions went to Valladay, representing a career-high for the senior running back. Along with those 89 receiving yards, he rushed for 92 yards and scored two touchdowns, continuing an all-conference caliber season by the Wyoming transfer.
“When you make plays and not shoot yourself in the foot, good things happen,” said Valladay.
Badger put together a strong second half with seven catches as he continued his stellar play over the last month. Gio Sanders continued to be an effective possession receiver, moving the chains on all five of his catches. After exploding for 108 yards and three touchdowns, tight end Jalin Conyers caught seven passes for 66 yards, and Swinson added two, including his first-quarter score, as the tight end position continues to emerge under Aguano’s playcalling.
It’s been two games with the tandem of Bourguet and Aguano reshaping the offense, and the returns have been promising. The playmakers are getting the ball in better spots more often, the approach has been more aggressive, and the production reflects that change. However, more consistency on third downs will be needed to avoid falling into multi-score holes like the Sun Devils found themselves on Saturday.
It was bad. Very bad. There’s no way around it.
402 rushing yards: Most given up since 511 against Arizona in 2016.
9.6 yards per carry: Worst mark since 10.0 against Stanford in 2017.
571 total yards: Highest surrendered since 2017 against UCLA.
The run defense, or lack of any, was the main takeaway on Saturday.
“We didn’t fit run fits. We didn’t wrap up like we should,” Aguano said. “You can’t win games letting a team run for 400 yards on you.”
ASU was playing without some key players, including defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott, due to illness. But despite the personnel shortcomings, the play up front was just not good enough.
“We need to play better in that interior,” Aguano said. “They’re a good line. They got on us, and we didn’t strike and separate. We didn’t wrap up when we had the time.”
Both Allen and Thompson-Robinson ran for over 100 yards. UCLA had 14 runs of 10 or more yards. Fourteen! Along with the inability to get off the field on third downs, it was a recipe for disaster, and ASU got cooked to perfection.
With just three games left and the margin for error now non-existent, the defense needs to find a solution. Immediately.
“We just have to be better,” Edmonds said. “We just can’t let that happen.”
The Top 3
Here are three Sun Devils who played well against UCLA.
RB X Valladay: He continues to be the workhorse of the offense. He posted a season-high 30 touches, gained 181 yards and scored twice. “Whenever my number is called, I love to make plays,” he said.
WR Elijhah Badger: The rising star receiver equaled his career-high in receptions (a mark set just last week), and scored a touchdown on a sensational one-handed grab in the third quarter.
WR Gio Sanders: Badger is (rightfully) getting a lot of attention, but Sanders continues to put together an impressive season. The former walk-on has been a go-to option in tough situations, and all five of his catches went for first downs. On the year, 20 of his 30 receptions have moved the chains.
The Question: Is there hope for the defense?
For most of the season, ASU’s biggest questions surrounded the offense. Since the change at quarterback and playcaller, the Sun Devil offense has been productive, if sometimes inconsistent. But suddenly, two weeks after keeping Stanford without a touchdown, the Sun Devil defense can’t stop anyone.
Personnel reasons can only go so far. Passive coverage on third downs has been a season-long issue. The inability to generate consistent pressure have allowed opposing quarterbacks far too much time.
Nine games into a season, this is probably just what the Sun Devil defense is and will be for the duration, but they’ll try to find a fix.
“Very confident that we can win out,” Edmonds said. “We’re going to lock in, watch tape, and see what we can fix.”
“We’re going to be ready,” Aguano said. “When I say ‘ready,’ I’m going to make sure that the coaches are preparing the kids to be successful.”
The Next Step
ASU will hit the road again for a trip to Pullman, WA to face Washington State. The Cougars beat Stanford 52-14 on Saturday to snap a three-game losing streak and get back over .500 on the year at 5-4. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. MT, with game-time temperatures forecasted to be in the mid-to-low 30s.
The Extra Points
- When asked how many players were impacted by illness, Agunao simply said, “More than a few.”
- UCLA’s 402 rushing yards was the most for a Bruin team since it ran for 437 yards rushing in a game against Washington State in 2010.
- For the third straight game, Bethley was flagged for a personal foul. Tonight’s flag came on the drive after ASU closed the gap to 42-36 and put UCLA inside ASU territory. “I tell those guys that we are going to play with passion, not emotion,” Agauno said. “When emotion gets involved, you make mistakes.”
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