ASU can’t overcome early deficit, falls to Washington State 28-18

A cold start dooms the Devils to their first losing season in six years.
Arizona State wide receiver Elijhah Badger (2) secures a pass for a touchdown while defended by...
Arizona State wide receiver Elijhah Badger (2) secures a pass for a touchdown while defended by Washington State defensive back Jaden Hicks (25) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Pullman, Wash. Washington State won 28-18. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)(Young Kwak | AP)
Published: Nov. 12, 2022 at 7:44 PM MST
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PULLMAN, WA (3TV/CBS 5) -- Capitulation would have been understandable. Just about everything to that point had gone wrong as Arizona State trailed by multiple touchdowns in late in the second quarter.

The offense was completely ineffective. The defense was giving up big play after big play. Several key players were out due to injury or illness. Oh, and the temperatures were frigid in the low 30s. Just run out the clock and get out of town.

ASU running back X Valladay had other ideas.

During a break in the action, he went over to the struggling Sun Devil defense and got their attention. “You don’t have to do more than you’re supposed to do already. Do your job, and everything should be fine,” he said. “Believe in each other. Keep playing hard.”

The words hit home.

“Whenever (Valladay) speaks, that carries weight,” defensive back Jordan Clark said. “He’s a great leader, a great football player. We all see him out there busting his tail to get extra yards. When a guy like that speaks, it inspires the group and makes you get off your butt and play as hard as you can.”

ASU rallied from a 28-0 halftime deficit to make it a game late in the fourth quarter. While the hole proved steep to overcome in the Sun Devils’ 28-18 loss to Washington State, it showed a team that, despite a turbulent season marked by a midseason coaching coaching change, will leave everything that they have on the field.

“I get prouder every week, because I see that fight,” said interim head coach Shaun Aguano. “They could have just quit after that first half. It’s cold out there. But they fought the whole way through.”

The Ohana

We’re playing on E right now with our personnel, but they don’t quit.” - Shaun Aguano

The Result

After forcing a punt on the game’s opening possession, ASU nearly avoided disaster on their first drive. Tight end Jalin Conyers missed a block, allowing Brennan Jackson to get a blindside sack on Trenton Bourguet that dislodged the ball. Conyers eventually recovered at the 1-yard line, saving a Cougar touchdown. Momentarily.

With the combination of the lost yardage from the fumble and a short punt, the Cougars began the next drive at the ASU 39. Nine plays later, the Cougars were in the endzone on a fourth-down run by Nakia Watson from a direct snap.

ASU went three-and-out on their next drive, but a 62-yard punt by Eddie Czaplicki pinned WSU at their 16-yard line. The Cougars were not pinned for long. Their quick-strike offense reeled off three explosive plays on the drive and found the endzone on a two-yard toss from Ward to Leyton Smithson. ASU linebacker James Djonkam blocked the extra point to limit the WSU to 13-0.

“The first half wasn’t our brand of football at all,” Valladay said. “I feel like we came out with no energy.”

Another ASU three-and-out resulted in the Cougars taking over quickly. Three more explosive plays had Washington State just two yards shy of another score. However, the Cougars were denied their second fourth-down touchdown of the first half when Ed Woods knocked away a Cam Ward pass, and the Sun Devils took over at their two-yard line.

The teams traded punts before the next big break in the game. Midway through the second quarter, Bourguet made a bad read and a pass to Gio Sanders was easily intercepted by Chau Smith-Wade and returned to the ASU four-yard line. Two plays later, Watson ran it in for the score, and Ward connected with Smithson for the two-point conversion to make it 21-0.

Following the score, Emory Jones, who had started the first seven games of the season, took over at quarterback. Bourguet had suffered an injury during the game’s second drive that tightened up and forced him out of action.

“We’re comfortable with whoever is back there. That’s why we practice,” said Valladay of the quarterback situation. “It’s all about trusting one another.”

Jones’ first pass was intercepted, but he was bailed out by a defensive holding call on Washington State. Some tough runs by Valladay briefly got ASU into Cougar territory, but a false start and a sack on third down ended the drive.

Washington State was able to score in the waning seconds of the half, with Watson scoring his third touchdown of the half to make it 28-0 at the break.

Out of halftime, the teams traded two punts each before ASU broke through late in the third quarter thanks to momentum generated by a defensive stand that featured consecutive sacks of Ward.

“I thought our defense played well,” Aguano said. “We gave them some short fields that they had to stop, but that second half they came back and shut those guys down.”

Facing a fourth down at the Cougar 47, Jones connected on a short pass to Conyers, who broke through tacklers on the way to a touchdown. The two-point conversion pass by Jones was off target, keeping the game 28-6.

Finally with some momentum, but with time dwindling, the Sun Devil offense put together another good drive early in the fourth quarter. With some good completions by Jones to get the drive started, the Sun Devils marched deep into Cougar territory. But a fourth down pass from Jones at the WSU 7-yard line sailed over the head of an open Elijhah Badger, and ASU turned the ball over on downs.

ASU’s defense managed to force a quick three-and-out, and the Sun Devils responded. Jones hit Badger for 16 yards, and Valladay reeled off a 22-yard run down to the 1-yard line, and he scored on the next play. Aguano went for two again, but Jones’ pass was incomplete.

An onside kick attempt failed, but ASU managed to stuff Watson on four straight runs to get the ball back with 2:17 left. Jones went to work and three completions, including a 35-yard catch-and-run by Valladay, got deep inside Cougar territory. Jones then hit Badger for a 9-yard score. The following two-point conversion pass attempt from Jones was incomplete, and the ensuing onside kick was recovered by the Cougars to seal the win.

“Playing from behind was too much,” Aguano said

The Critical Moments

Typically, this section is reserved for the plays that ultimately led down the path to victory or defeat. But a pair of plays late in what was, at the time, a blowout illuminated the heart with which this undermanned Sun Devil squad is playing.

With under four minutes left in the third quarter of a 28-0 game, ASU had just punted yet again. As the Cougars went to work looking for more points, the Sun Devil defense rose to the occasion.

On back-to-back plays, Ward was taken down for a sack, first by defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott and Merlin Robertson and then by Norman-Lott and Nesta Jade Silvera. Those plays forced a WSU punt, generated some momentum, and ASU would drive for their first touchdown on the ensuing possession.

“It was about growing up,” Clark said. “Digging your feet in the grass and saying, ‘That’s enough.’”

The Offense

It was truly a tale of two halves.

ASU was shut out in the first half, and with their quarterback knocked out of the game, the prospects were bleak. In the first half, ASU simply could not hold back the pressure from the Cougar defense.

“We knew that they were going to bring pressure,” Aguano said. “We had to win those one-on-one battles and convert, and we didn’t. We put ourselves in situations that we shouldn’t have been in. They did what they are known to do, and bring exotic blitzes.”

Center Ben Scott was banged up in the game, forcing the team to go with Ben Bray at the position. It was already a group without their best player, left guard LaDarius Henderson, who missed his third straight game. The struggles in the trenches over the last few weeks for ASU have put a noticeable crimp in the offense’s flow.

“We tried to simplify it a little bit, especially when we were dropping back and passing,” Aguano said of his offensive line. “I thought they did a good job containing that front line.”

ASU also committed costly penalties and had dropped passes that derailed drives.

“I don’t think they showed us anything different,” Valladay said. “It just came down to executing. It came down to certain penalties, things like that and shooting ourselves in the foot that we can’t do.”

The quarterback situation will be of keen interest down the stretch. Jones had won the starting job in fall camp after transferring in from Florida, but the offense’s inconsistency over the first seven games led to Aguano inserted Bourguet into the starting lineup. Bourguet was just 3-of-10 passing for 26 yards and one interception when he left the game due to injury.

Jones was erratic at first but ultimately honed in his passing to a degree. The team opted to stay with the run, but Jones did make some big plays down the field, but he also misfired on several other attempts, most critically to an open Badger on a fourth-and-goal. He finished the day completing 15 of his 23 passes for 186 yards and two scores.

“Emory came in and did what he needed to do,” Aguano said.

Valladay continues to be this team’s MVP. He rushed for 134 yards and one touchdown and led the Sun Devils with six catches and 55 yards receiving. After a quiet first half, Badger added five catches and 48 yards and scored a touchdown for the fourth time in five games. Other than his beastly 47-yard touchdown, Conyers did not have a catch, nor did tight end Messiah Swinson.

The status of Bourguet and Henderson will be keenly watched in the lead up to Saturday’s game against Oregon State.

The Defense

The prospects were tough even before the first snap. Several key players, including the team’s top tackler in linebacker Kyle Soelle and key cornerbacks Ro Torrence and Isaiah Johnson, were out due to either injury and illness. More players were banged up during the game, and the Cougars took advantage early. Washington State managed seven explosive plays (runs of 10+ yard, passes of 15+) during the first half in building their 28-0 lead.

“We were playing really soft at first, allowing quick game,” Clark said. “They were hitting slants, hitting hitches, screens were going for extra yards.”

At halftime, the defense took stock of the situation. And of themselves. Personnel losses can only excuse so much.

“It’s just a gut check,” said Clark.

In the second half, the defense was more aggressive.

“The second half, we just tightened up as a secondary,” said Clark. “The guys in the box played their gap, and I think it paid dividends.”

After a first half in which they surrendered 291 yards and 6.1 yards per play, those figures dropped to 65 and 2.7 while keeping Washington State off the scoreboard.

“The front box did a great job doing their job,” Aguano said. “I thought it was a huge improvement from last week. They played with a lot of attitude on third downs. The emphasis was really good on third downs. Our secondary locked down their receivers, and we had six, seven guys in the box that contained the run. They did a good job.”

Without Soelle, Robertson led the way with nine tackles and a half-sack. Defensive tackle Nesta Jade Silvera added seven tackles and 1.5 TFL. Cornerback Ed Woods continued his emergence, making another start and had two pass break ups.

All told, it was an admirable turnaround given the toll injuries and the flu have taken on the defense. Several young players played key snaps on Saturday that may pay dividends in the future, but in the short-term future of the final two games, the Sun Devils will need much better and much more consistent play from their defense.

The Top 3

Here are three Sun Devils who played well against Washington State.

P Eddie Czaplicki: Given the offensive woes in the first half, it was looking like Czaplicki would make a run a the school record for punts in a game (12). Thanks to the success in the second half, he only ended with seven kicks, but he did well. He averaged over 48 yards per punt, pinning three inside the 20 and launching two over 50 yards, including a 62-yarder in the first half.

RB X Valladay: One shudders to think what this offense would look like without him. He added another 189 yards from scrimmage and scored his 15th touchdown of the year.

DT Nesta Jade Silvera: The defense was humbled in the first half, but Silvera’s high motor was on display all game long. He made seven tackles from his defensive tackle spot and led the team with 1.5 tackles for loss.

The Question: How will they respond with no bowl chances?

A losing season is assured. There will be no bowl game for these Sun Devils. The expectations, at least externally, for this year’s team were not very high, but they certainly were not this low.

So now what?

It’s about playing for pride. For legacy. And in two week’s time, for continued ownership of state bragging rights and the Territorial Cup.

”Those guys are going to finish and leave their legacy as a team that will never quit,” Agauno said. “They will come back tomorrow and get ready for the next two weeks.”

With the postseason out of the picture, ASU fans now shift their hopes to simply beating Arizona on Friday, Nov. 25. ASU has won the last five meetings over their hated archrival, but while the Wildcats are not having a good year in the won-loss column, they are much better than in recent seasons.

This is a Sun Devil squad that, despite all the struggles and challenges faced this year, will not want to be the ones to end ASU’s rivalry winning streak.

“Our guys will play as hard as they can the next two weeks,” Aguano said. “I’ve seen that through every single game that we’ve played. We’ll see that for the next two weeks too.”

The Next Step

ASU returns to Tempe for their Homecoming game, which is doubling as Senior Day, on Nov. 19 as they host Oregon State. The Beavers improved to 7-3 on the season with a 38-10 win over Cal on Saturday night.

Kickoff in Tempe is set for 12:15 p.m. with the TV broadcast on ESPN2.

The Extra Points

  • X Valladay cracked the top 100 on the all-time FBS rushing list. He is just 14 yards shy of 1,000 on the year.
  • I asked Aguano about Bourguet’s status, and he mentioned that he will consult with the team doctors. “Hopefully it’s not too bad.”
  • Regarding the team’s ongoing flu issues, Aguano mentioned that, “We still have a bunch of guys with illness.”