ASU snaps losing streak with 38-27 Homecoming win over Washington State

After weeks of “close but no cigar,” the Devils finally did it.
Arizona State defensive lineman Prince Dorbah (32) celebrates a defensive stop against...
Arizona State defensive lineman Prince Dorbah (32) celebrates a defensive stop against Washington State with linebacker Travion Brown (82) and defensive lineman Clayton Smith (3) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)(Ross D. Franklin | AP)
Published: Oct. 29, 2023 at 12:17 AM MST
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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- Throughout the week, Travion Brown prayed. He prayed a lot.

The Arizona State linebacker had spent four seasons at Washington State, and with his former team coming to town, he initially felt a desire for revenge, to unleash all the feelings of angst. But as he prayed, he realized that was the wrong path. The revenge was not his to take. So he focused on doing his “one-eleventh” as part of the Sun Devil defense.

After his new team came out with a hard-fought 38-27 win over the Cougars, Brown took a knee on the field, thankful that his prayers were answered. His, along with so many more throughout Sun Devil nation.

Saturday’s win snapped a program-record-tying six-game losing streak and gave head coach Kenny Dillingham his first conference win. But more than that, it provided relief and a much-needed proof-of-concept for the rebuilding Sun Devil program. After four straight games of the Sun Devils playing well enough to win but doing just enough to lose, ASU managed to finally put together a complete game.

The offense put together their best showing of the season with over 500 yards, the defense made key stops in critical moments, and the special teams units rebounded after some recent shaky showings. This was a performance in line with the vision Dillingham—in his first season coaching at his alma mater—has for the program.

“Football is about those big moments that win or lose big games,” said Dillingham. “Today, we made those moments.”

The Activation

“That’s winning the moments that matter. That’s winning football.” - Kenny Dillingham

The Result

Both teams wasted little time in getting a hot start offensively.

WSU quarterback Cam Ward methodically moved the Cougars down the field on the opening drive, connecting on eight of 11 throws before capping the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.

ASU responded right back. Bourguet hit tight end Ryan Morgan on a key third down to keep the drive alive before lofting a well-thrown fade to Troy Omeire for 30 yards. Brooks then found the endzone on a 13-yard run.

“It all starts with the guys up front, and they did a great job allowing us to have some explosives in the run game. It makes everything easier,” Bourguet said.

The defenses then settled down for the remainder of the first quarter. In between two Washington State punts, ASU put together a solid drive, highlighted by a 19-yard catch by tight end Bryce Pierre, but the Sun Devils could not cash in as Dario Longhetto’s 50-yard field goal was missed.

ASU got back on track midway through the second quarter. Opening with five straight big gains by wide receiver Elijhah Badger and tight end Jalin Conyers, the Sun Devil marched down the field. One play after a goal line set that featured five ASU defensive players playing offense (including a pass thrown to defensive end Clayton Smith), Brooks pounded the ball in to give ASU a 14-7 lead.

Ward responded quickly, connecting on three downfield passes to get into Sun Devil territory. Aided by two offsides penalties on ASU, the Cougars entered the redzone, where Ward again eluded the pass rush and scrambled 11 yards for the game-tying score.

The resurgent Sun Devil ground game responded immediately. Cam Skattebo took a toss to the left, managing to stay just in bounds for a 66-yard gain. Three plays later, he finished the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.

“To see gashes of eight, to 10, to 15 yards, to see Skat breaks that one for like 70 yards, to see those plays finally pop up, that’s what this offense has needed the last couple of weeks,” said Bourguet.

WSU then put together a quick strike drive to tie it. A 38-yard pass to Kyle Williams on the opening play of the drive put the Sun Devil defense on their heels, and Ward then fired a dart to Lincoln Victor a few plays later for the 9-yard score.

Receiving the kickoff with under a minute left in the opening half, Dillingham was rewarded for his aggressive mindset. Bourguet managed to march the Sun Devils just inside WSU territory, where Longhetto connected on a 51-yard field goal on the final play of the half to send ASU into the break with a 24-21 lead.

“That could be the difference in the game,” Dillingham said. “You’re talking about a two-possession game there versus a one-possession game because we won the middle eight (minutes of the game).”

The Sun Devils kept the momentum up to open the third quarter. Keyed by a 23-yard catch by Gio Sanders on a third-and-17 and a 15-yard contested catch by tight end Messiah Swinson, ASU found the endzone on a 6-yard run by Badger.

“At the end of the day, you have to be a physical football team,” Dillingham said. “Teams that win championships play physical football, and they can run the ball. We were just trying to be creative to find an identity to how to run the ball.”

The teams then traded punts―which marked ASU’s first of the evening―before Washington State broke through to end the third quarter. The Cougars drove down the field, this time led by their running game, but a late stand by ASU’s defense, including a hard hit on Ward by Shamari Simmons to force a third-down incompletion, forced WSU to settle for a field goal.

Sensing blood in the water, ASU opened the fourth quarter with a bang. Bourguet hit Conyers down the right sideline for a 50-yard gain that set up Brooks’ third touchdown run of the game two plays later.

“For us to finally get some of those explosives, it opens up everything in the gameplan,” Bourguet said. “It allows us to put up some big points.”

Trailing 38-24 with time dwindling, the Cougar offense went up tempo and found success moving the ball. Facing a third-and-6 at the ASU 13-yard line, the drive appeared to stall when Prince Dorbah batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage. But Ward picked up the ball and appeared to try to advance it, prompting ASU defenders to pursue. Safety Alphonso Taylor was then flagged for unnecessary roughness, giving WSU a first-and-goal. Despite the questionable call, ASU’s defense managed to hold, with B.J Green sacking Ward on a third-and-goal. That forced another short Cougar field goal to trim the lead to 38-27.

“We were unwavering in what we were trying to do, what our assignment was,” Green said.

ASU managed to drain nearly four minutes off the clock on their next drive before punting to Washington State. Needing two scores with under five minutes left, Ward dinked-and-dunked the Cougars deep inside ASU territory. But on a fourth-and-goal from the two, his pass to Williams was incomplete.

“We executed. We executed on our plays,” Brown said of the stand. “We had good communication which was one of the big keys to the stop.”

ASU then ran out the final seconds to secure the win.

The Critical Moment

After Washington State kicked a field goal to make it a one-score ASU lead entering the fourth quarter, fans were undoubtedly worried. Here we go again.

Instead, the Sun Devils showed off their aggressive edge that helped secure their win. Bouguet went deep to Conyers, who not only made the catch, but muscled through defenders for a 50-yard gain. Two plays later, Brooks scored to put ASU ahead by two touchdowns.

“The entire program is about attacking,” said Dillingham. “If you’re going to be in a mindset to win games, then you have to attack in every phase. That’s how we coach. That’s how we play.”

The Offense

When Bourguet got the playsheet for the game on Saturday morning, things jumped off the page: This can be an explosive. This can be looking good. This can be good.

As he came back to the sidelines after a drive, he told the staff, “Everything they’re calling is working.”

It’s been a rough year for the offense. The unit has been ravaged by injuries, with quarterback and offensive line being especially hard hit. Dillingham took over playcalling duties from offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin after the third game, and while the results have been better, they were not exactly good. That changed on Saturday.

“It’s awesome to see everything work together,” Bourguet said. “It’s the start of something special.”

ASU blew by their prior season highs in every key category: Points (38, prior high 28), total yards (509, 439), and rushing yards (235, 145). They converted eight of 11 third down opportunities. After struggling all season to make explosive plays, they had seven passes over 15 yards and rushes over 10 yards. Everything was clicking.

“To have so many offensive masterminds with Coach Dilly, and Coach Baldwin, and Aguano, and Coach Mohns, everybody on the offensive side, they put their two cents in,” Bourguet said. “To see them all work together and find ways to get the ball in the playmakers’ hands, it makes it easy for me.”

The run game led the way. Despite the numerous offensive line injuries, the run game was boosted by the return of Brooks last week, and the one-two combo of Brooks (67 yards) and Skattebo (121) excelled throughout the night.

“We had one big run, then we consistently chopped wood down the field,” said Dillingham.

Leading the offense was Bourguet, who made solid decisions throughout the night and did not put the ball in jeopardy. He completed 19 of 26 passes for 274 yards, and unlike in recent weeks, took shots downfield that paid off, which four connections over 20 yards.

Four tight ends caught passes, led by Conyers’ team-high 90 yards on four grabs. Badger added 60 yards on four catches, and was used creatively in the run game, with four carries for 18 yards, including a touchdown. Wide receiver Troy Omeire continues to emerge as a big play threat, and had a 30-yard catch among his four receptions.

When asked last week about the offense’s struggles—after having scored just seven points in the loss to Washington—Dillingham said that the offense left a dirty bus, referring to a messy situation on the team’s ride from the stadium. He said that was indicative of an inattention to detail. This week, the focus was greatly improved, and so were the on-field results.

“We did a great job all week, whether it was cleaning the locker room, picking up trash in the film room, making sure people were on time to meetings. It all starts with the little things, and that’s what makes the great teams great,” Bourguet said.

It took eight games, but finally, the pieces all clicked at the same time for the Sun Devils, just in time for the homestretch.

“Can’t wait for the rest of the year,” said Bourguet.

The Defense

After last week’s masterful performance in which they held the explosive Washington Husky offense without an offensive touchdown, the expectations on an already good season for the Sun Devil defense were further raised. While the total numbers weren’t as good—403 yards and 27 points allowed—the plays were made when they were needed most.

“Defense didn’t play as good as they have in the past, but that didn’t matter because they won the moments,” Dillingham said.

ASU bent, but did not often break. They didn’t put up an impressive sack total, but they harassed Ward consistently. They allowed just three WSU third down conversions in 12 attempts. Perhaps most crucially, they allowed just three points in two Cougar drives inside the redzone in the fourth quarter.

“We won the situations,” said Dillingham. “We won third down in the second half, and we won the low redzone battle.”

As they have been all season, the defensive line led the way. The defensive end trio of B.J Green (2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries), Prince Dorbah (two tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries, one pass batted down), and Clayton Smith (1.5 sacks) were swarming in the backfield all game long.

“Our D-line as eating tonight, and they helped us on the backend too,” Brown said.

Being able to put pressure on Ward helped to limit the explosive Cougar passing game, which entered the night fifth in the nation.

“If we put pressure on him, good things will always happen,” Green said.

About the only thing missing from Saturday’s performance was a lack of turnovers. After generating just one over the first six games, ASU forced four last week against Washington, but didn’t register any against WSU. However, they made up for it with those game-changing plays in crunchtime.

“The standard is the standard,” Green said. “Every week, every game, every half that we play, the standard is always to finish.”

The Top 3

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

RB DeCarlos Brooks: A career-best three touchdowns for the Chandler native. Said Dillingham: “He’s physical. He’s passionate. He runs hard. He runs through people.”

DE Prince Dorbah: When the team needed a big play, he was most often the man to provide it.

RB Cam Skattebo: Despite playing through the bumps and bruises his physical style brings, Skattebo continued to be the heart and soul of the offense.

The Question: Have they turned a corner?

Despite the win, Dillingham isn’t letting himself get caught in the moment. He’s still focused on the big picture.

“I’m not relieved at all. I’m happy. It’s going to be a great night, fun night. Great. But it’s still about the process,” Dillingham said. “We’re four plays away from losing the game too.”

As ASU made a trend of close-but-no-cigar efforts against USC, Cal, Colorado, and Washington, Dillingham continued to hammer home the point that the team was still learning how to win, and that when they finally do, wins will come in bunches.

For much of the year, the defense has carried the team. But against Colorado, it was the defense that allowed the game-winning score after a clutch drive by the offense. Special teams have been an adventure due to key injuries. Saturday against Washington State, they were all on the same page.

“Today, we put together a somewhat complete game,” said Dillingham. “For us to win a four-minute drill at the end of a game, for us to win at the end of the first half and get those extra three points, that’s winning football.”

So was this the long-awaited first domino to fall in the cavalcade of wins? Or a flash in the pan? ASU’s final four games are all against teams either already bowl eligible or likely to make the postseason, so we’ll get a better read on the trajectory of the rebuild over the next month.

But after Saturday, we know that ASU is capable, even in a Year 0 situation amplified with injuries, that they can get the job done on a given night.

“It’s good for our guys to see that if we play complementary football, we can win football games. We’re getting better every week. I can say that with confidence.”

The Next Step

ASU will head north next Saturday for a difficult road battle against Utah, who entered the weekend ranked No. 13 in the AP poll. The injury-ravaged Utes fell to No. 8 Oregon earlier on Saturday 35-6, dropping the two-time defending Pac-12 champions to 6-2 on the season.

The Sun Devils and Utes have developed a strong rivalry in recent years, which will continue as both are heading to the Big 12 conference in 2024.

The Extra Points

  • Conyers moved into sixth place on ASU’s all-time tight end receptions list with 68.
  • On a first half offensive goal line play, ASU lined up five defensive players on offense: defensive ends B.J. Green and Clayton Smith, linebacker Tre Brown, defensive tackle C.J. Fite, and defensive back Jordan Clark. Why? A reward for last week’s big performance...and a little something else. Said Bourguet: “Since they had so many turnovers, we drew up a defensive play. They did a good job stopping it, but what we wanted was to get Tre in the endzone.”
  • Morgan’s catch in the first quarter was his first career reception in four seasons as a Sun Devil.