ASU embarrassed in 29-0 home loss to Fresno State

It was a historically bad showing by the Sun Devil offense
Fresno State defensive lineman Kemari Munier-Bailey (35) sacks Arizona State quarterback Drew...
Fresno State defensive lineman Kemari Munier-Bailey (35) sacks Arizona State quarterback Drew Pyne (10) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)(Rick Scuteri | AP)
Published: Sep. 17, 2023 at 2:26 AM MST
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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- “If we would have just punted on offense, we probably would have had a better football game.”

You know it’s a rough night for the offense when that’s the assessment made by the head coach, yet it’s all Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham could do Saturday night. The Sun Devils’ 29-0 loss to Fresno State marked the first home game in which ASU failed to score in 35 years.

Heading into Saturday night’s showdown, Dillingham knew his offense would be fighting an uphill battle. ASU was starting a backup quarterback behind an offensive line ravaged by injuries, yet he—and just about everyone else—did not expect what happened at Mountain America Stadium.

“I’ve never in my career been involved in a game like that,” Dillingham said. “I literally couldn’t even explain how that’s even possible.”

A slew of additional injuries knocked out two Sun Devil quarterbacks and several others on both sides of the ball. Through the injuries and eight ASU turnovers, another quality effort by the Sun Devil defense was squandered. The loss leaves ASU 1-2, and facing significant questions—both injury-related and otherwise—about an offense that hasn’t scored a point in six quarters and counting.

“We’re going to get it fixed,” said Dillingham of his offense. “I’m going to get it fixed. That’s a guarantee that I’m going to get it fixed.”

The Activation

“No one said it was going to be easy. I didn’t sign up for easy.” - Kenny Dillingham

The Result

It started bad, got worse, and continued to devolve throughout the night.

On the game’s opening drive, Fresno State quarterback Mikey Keene, a Valley product from Chandler High School, connected on all six of his throws, the final toss being a 19-yard score to Jalen Moss to quickly put FSU up 7-0.

Trenton Bourguet, getting the start with starter Jaden Rashada out injured, underthrew a pass that was intercepted on ASU’s third play from scrimmage. ASU’s defense would hold the Bulldogs to a Dylan Lynch field goal to limit the lead to 10-0, thanks to a sack by cornerback Ro Torrence on third down.

To add injury to insult, Bourguet left the game with a left leg injury on ASU’s next drive and would not return. On the net play, backup quarterback Drew Pyne was sacked from his blindside and fumbled, which was recovered by Fresno State. Another sack by Torrence stalled the Bulldogs, forcing them to settle for another field goal to make it 13-0.

“Credit to the defensive coaching staff, then Ro making the play,” Dillingham said. “It’s one thing to be there and call the right thing, it’s another thing to execute and make the play and execute. I was proud of him. He responded really well to last week’s game. He played a really nice game today.”

Three plays later, recent history repeated itself when Pyne was again sacked and lost the ball, with the Bulldogs recovering at the Sun Devil 13-yard line. Another good stand limited the damage to another Lynch field goal to keep it a two-score game at 16-0.

Pyne and the Sun Devils looked to finally get things on track on the next drive. A well-placed throw to Elijhah Badger picked up 24 yards, and Pyne followed that up with an accurate 12-yard pass to tight end Bryce Pierre and an 11-yard scramble. An 11-yard completion to Xavier Guillory, combined with a roughing the passer penalty on FSU, set ASU up with a first-and-goal at the 3-yard line. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, three straight runs and a fourth-down pass failed to score, turning the ball over on downs.

Taking over backed up on their 1-yard line, Keene and the Bulldogs appeared poised to blow the game further open. They methodically marched down the field before facing a third-and-1 at the ASU 18. But an aggressive ASU pass rush notched a sack and forced three penalties, including an intentional grounding flag, to push Fresno State out of field goal range.

Taking over with 24 seconds left in the half, Dillingham opted to have his team push the ball. But Pyne was intercepted on the second play of the drive.

“We need to be more consistent with where the ball needs to go,” Dillingham said. “There needs to be a more direct plan on, if you get this look, this is where the ball goes. We should be able to see from the sideline exactly what’s going to happen before it happens. We got to do some work making sure everybody is on the same page.”

ASU’s fourth turnover of the half gave Lynch a chance to add to the lead, but his attempt from 53 yards was no good.

In the locker room, the Sun Devils knew that despite their self-inflicted issues, they remained in the game.

“Win the second half. That’s all we can do,” safety Chris Edmonds said. “Play hard. Play with effort.”

Receiving the ball to open the second half, still only down two scores, the Sun Devils failed to make any offensive improvement, going three and out. Keene then made the night’s biggest play, capping a quick five-play drive with a 42-yard touchdown pass to Jaelen Gill to make it 23-0.

The turnover woes then came fast and furious for ASU. On the third play of their next drive, Pyne was intercepted again, but ASU evaded further harm on the scoreboard when Lynch missed another field goal. However, they lost Pyne due to an injury on the play. ASU wsa not so lucky when running back Tevin White fumbled two plays later, setting Fresno State up at the ASU 32-yard line. The Bulldogs moved inside the Sun Devil redzone, but consecutive sacks by Prince Dorbah and Shamari Simmons forced Lynch to try another field goal. This time, he connected from 50 yards, extending the lead to 26-0.

With Jacob Conover now in at quarterback, ASU managed a lone first down before having to punt it away. Fresno State was forced to punt, but the kick by Carson King was downed at the ASU 1-yard line, pinning the Sun Devils deep in their own territory. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Conover was intercepted, the third on the night by Fresno State’s Carlton Johnson. This led to the game’s final points, a 33-yard field goal by Lynch.

Conover was intercepted a final time two drives later, capping one of the most miserable offensive showings in school history.

The Critical Moment

Somewhat inexplicably, ASU was only down two scores midway through the second quarter and had a golden opportunity to get back into the game. First and goal from the Fresno State 3-yard line. Even with a depleted offensive line, the Sun Devils had to punch it in. They lined up in a goal line formation.

First down: A run by Cam Skattebo gained only a yard.

Second down: A fullback dive to George Hart III, playing for an injured DeCarlos Brooks, gained just a yard.

Third down: Hart is stuffed for no gain.

On fourth down, just a yard away, Dillingham passes up the field goal to go for it. A play-action pass is read well by the Bulldog defense, and Pyne is flushed to his right under pressure. His pass is floated over the head of Pierre.

Threat—and game—over.

The Offense

“I know our guys are disgusted with how we played,” Dillingham said. They should be.

When they weren’t turning the ball over, they were missing blocks, making mistakes, or failing to execute their assignments. Prior to their final drive of the night well into garbage time, they had gained under 200 yards against a defense that a week before surrendered 31 points to an FCS opponent just a week prior. ASU averaged just 3.6 yards-per-play on the night.

“Everything we saw, they’d shown on tape multiple times and was exactly, sadly enough, what we prepared for,” said Dillingham. “We got to be able to coach that better, and make sure our guys are not just taking our film room to the game, taking practice to the game and applying it on game day at a higher rate. That falls on me as the head coach.”

While no one on the ASU staff would use them as an excuse, injuries were a major factor. Starting quarterback Jaden Rashada didn’t play after not practicing during the week the game, and will miss the next four-to-six weeks with an injury. ASU entered the game without star tight end Jalin Conyers and both starting offensive tackles. Their short-yardage running back was out. During the night, quarterbacks Trenton Bourguet and Drew Pyne left with injuries. Tight end Bryce Pierre, wide receiver Melquan Stovall, running back Tevin White, right tackle Max Iheanachor, and right guard Joey Ramos were knocked out from the game too. It’s an incredible run of horrible injury luck, but one that doesn’t matter come game day.

“I can’t worry about any of that,” Dillingham said. “I can worry about the guys that are going practice on Monday, practice on Tuesday, practice on Wednesday, play on Saturday. That’s it.”

Who that may be is anyone’s guess. But could the adjustments to be made could include a change in playcaller? For the first three games, it has been offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin making the calls. Could Dillingham, who has risen quickly through the coaching ranks on the strength of his stints as an offensive coordinator at marquee programs, take over? He didn’t shoot down the possibility when asked.

“We’re going to get the offense fixed,” Dillingham said. “I’ve never been a part of something like that. We’re going to fix the offense. Is it going to be fixed overnight? No. Are we going to be better? Yes.”

Whoever makes the calls next Saturday will likely be doing so with a still depleted offensive line, a third or fourth-string quarterback, and a couple of other key pieces missing from the lineup. Yet, through the adversity, Dillingham liked that the injury-ravaged unit played hard. He can build off of that.

“How we played is unacceptable on one side of the ball. It’s the worst I’ve ever been around my entire career,” he said. “But, the effort and the intent is in the direction that we want to go.”

The Defense

For the third straight game, the defense played well enough to win. For the third straight game, they hardly had any help from the offense.

“Our defense fought hard and battled,” said Dillingham. “Eight turnovers and giving up 29 points, that’s remarkable. When you have eight turnovers and give up 29 points, that is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever been a part of.”

After the game’s opening drive, ASU held Fresno State to 275 yards and just 3.6 yards per play. All this despite having to face 83 Bulldog plays from scrimmage, often with little rest given their offense’s failures.

“They put in the work. They’re passionate. They care. We have great leadership,” said Dillingham of his defense. “Those guys play play because they love the game. They play for each other, and it shows up at a high level. I’m proud of how they’re playing.”

One area that continues to impress is the pass rush. ASU registered six sacks, their highest single-game total since the 2018 season opener. New defensive coordinator Brian Ward is living up to his reputation as a effective schemer of chaos from all levels of the defense. Of the six sacks, 3.5 came from defensive backs—two by cornerback Ro Torrence, one by safety Shamari Simmons, and a half by safety Josiah Cox. Edge rusher Prince Dorbah tallied two.

“Coach Ward is very aggressive, and Coach Ward is going to constantly try to create pressure on the quarterback,” Dillingham said. “I think we did that tonight.”

“Coach Ward is a mastermind, so whatever he calls, we run,” said senior nickelback Jordan Clark.

While the sacks were a welcome sight, the Sun Devils again failed to create a turnover for the third straight game, something that must change and do so quickly. The defense also lost starting defensive end Clayton Smith to a lower leg injury, and he was seen after the game in a walking boot on his left leg.

With the expected continued struggles of the offense, Ward will need to keep scheming up some magic to give ASU a chance as conference play begins.

The Top 3

Here are three Sun Devils who stood out against Fresno State.

DE Prince Dorbah: A pair of sacks gives him the team lead. He added two quarterback hurries as well.

CB Ro Torrence: The veteran defensive back was effective in derailing drives with his pair of sacks.

S Shamari Simmons: His status was in doubt due to a practice injury, but he started and picked up a sack.

The Question: How can the offense improve given the injuries?

They easily could make the excuse. No one would blame them. But the Sun Devils aren’t crying woe is me about their growing injury report.

“The mood around the team is next man up,” said Clark. “You gotta play football. If anyone’s mood isn’t that, that’ll get corrected, and we’ll fix that internally.”

Given the one-sided play thus far into the season, there could be some concern of the defensive players resenting the continued struggles of the offense. That hasn’t happened.

“In times of adversity and when stuff is tough, I just want them to know that we are still here for them,” said Clark. “Whatever people in the stands are saying or however they feel about themselves, we believe in them. We’re going to keep uplifting, keep playing ball, try to give them a spark. Those guys will get it fixed, they’re good football players.”

Good or not, it may simply come down to which of them are healthy enough to play. ASU will be going far down the depth charts at the two most critical position groups, quarterback and offensive line. While they still boast some dangerous weapons, it can, and has been, negated by the issues.

Even more pressure falls on Dillingham, Baldwin, and the rest of the staff to devise gameplans that can compensate for such critical losses.

“The situation we’re in is not ideal. But who cares? We got to find a way,” said Dillingham. “I’m going to do everything in my power to keep our team motivated, to keep working, to keep building, and to get Arizona State to where I know it’s going to get to

The Next Step

ASU opens up Pac-12 play—for the last time—next Saturday night when they host USC. The Trojans and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams are on a bye this week, but sit at No. 5 in the latest AP poll. With ASU’s move to the Big 12 and USC off to the Big Ten next season, it could quite some a while until these longtime conference rivals meet again.

The Extra Points

  • ASU’s last home shutout came against USC on Nov. 2, 1988 when the Trojans beat them 50-0.
  • The eight turnovers were two shy of the school record of 10, set in 1973 against Utah.