PASADENA, CA (3TV/CBS 5) -- It was supposed to be easier.
A week removed from a punishing loss in frigid Salt Lake City, No. 24 Arizona State aimed to get back on track in sunny southern California against a UCLA squad that won just two games this season.
Instead, the Sun Devils continued to self-destruct and were bullied by the Bruins in a disheartening 42-32 loss.
“It looked like a different football team out there," said ASU head coach Herm Edwards of his team.
UCLA used four touchdowns from running back Joshua Kelley to put together a lead that a mistake-prone Sun Devil team could not overcome.
The loss drops ASU to 5-3 on the year and 2-3 in Pac-12 play, essentially ending their hopes at making a run at the South division title. It also leaves the team with several important questions to address over the upcoming bye week.
“Going through this, we’re going to find out a lot about the young guys in the locker room and about the seniors too," Edwards said. "Who wants to lead? Who wants to step up?”
“This is gonna hurt, and it should hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, you don’t belong in the circle.”
Coming off a hard 21-3 loss to Utah, No. 24 ASU was expecting to rebound against a UCLA team that had struggled with consistency all year long on both sides of the ball and had yet to register a win in the Rose Bowl.
The Bruins had other plans.
They forced and recovered a fumble by ASU running back Eno Benjamin on the game's fourth play which was quickly cashed in with a Joshua Kelley touchdown run.
“Game didn’t start out how we anticipated," Edwards said. "For me, it was more than just the score. It was out emotions. We didn't handle them very good. At times, I felt like we had no energy early in the football game.”
The Sun Devils did manage to answer two drives later. George Lea sacked UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson, forcing a fumble deep inside Bruin territory. ASU recovered, and quarterback Jayden Daniels was able to sneak it in for the game-tying score a few plays later.
That would be as close as the Sun Devils would get for the rest of the game.
UCLA would then string together two 16-play drives that ended with Kelley touchdown runs to extend their lead to 21-7. Both drives were extended with the help of costly ASU penalties on third downs.
“Mixing passion with emotion, and when it gets to the emotion side, it comes out," Edwards said of his team's lack of discipline.
Meanwhile, ASU's offense was held in check by the Bruin defense and by penalties. The Sun Devils managed just 146 yards in the half.
“We just didn’t play our game," said Daniels. "First half, we were not ourselves. We just didn’t play our game.”
Just before the half, Thompson-Robinson found a wide open Kyle Phillips for a 20-yard touchdown to put ASU in a 28-7 halftime hole.
Edwards had a simple message for his team in the locker room.
“If you continue to play like this, I don’t know what the score is going to be," he said. "Just win the second half. Get your mojo back.”
The Bruins ran right at ASU on the opening drive of the second half with Kelley scoring his fourth touchdown of the night to make it 35-7.
“They did everything we saw (on film)," ASU linebacker Darien Butler said. "We didn’t come ready. We didn’t give ourselves a chance out of the gate.”
Meanwhile, the Sun Devil offense failed to sustain drives, with several stops coming in short-yardage situations.
“You got to get freaking one yard in football to win a football," said ASU offensive coordinator Rob Likens. "It’s one freaking yard. That’s the whole football game.”
With the score 42-10 heading into the fourth quarter, Daniels threw three touchdowns in garbage time, two to Frank Darby and one to true freshman Nolan Matthews.
It was a small consolation on an otherwise miserable night for Arizona State.
“As the game ended, I felt better about our competitiveness," Edwards said.
The Critical Moments
Usually, this is where we highlight a key play that impacted the course of the game. For this game, it's 32 plays.
After ASU had tied the game at 7-7, UCLA took possession at their own 19-yard line. From there, they began an impressive 16-play drive that ate up 7:14 off the clock and ended with a 5-yard Kelley touchdown.
The Bruins forced an ASU punt, and UCLA took over at their own 20. They then put together a near repeat of their prior drive: 16 plays and 80 yards, this time buring 8:27 off the clock.
On those drives, UCLA converted seven third or fourth downs.
“Our front six, we have to do a better job of tackling," said Butler. "Getting off the field, especially, we can’t let other teams convert third downs.”
They were a pair of gut-punches from which ASU never recovered.
Last week, ASU couldn't move the ball against Utah, one of the nation's best defenses. Facing UCLA, one of the nation's worst defenses, proved to not be much different.
ASU stumbled out of the gates with just 68 yards in the first quarter. ASU's offense couldn't sustain drives, and the Sun Devil defense was unable to get off the field. It was a lethal combo.
“It came down to, on both sides of the ball, third downs,” Daniels said. “We didn’t convert. Defense didn’t get off the field.”
Most maddening for ASU's offensive coordinator was his team's inability to win in short-yardage situations.
“It was the plan to hit them on some play action passes, but we ever got to them," Likens said. "We couldn’t get third-and-1. I’m going to make that my mission in life the next week and study that and try to understand. If we stay on schedule on offense and pick up those third-and-1s, it’s going to be a totally different deal for everybody.”
As was the case against Utah, penalties proved to be a constant problem. In several key moments, plays were called back or the team was put into a deep hole due to a flag.
“When it goes your way, you don’t say anything," Edwards said. "When it doesn’t go your way, you don’t start boo-hooing.”
Only when they game was out of reach did ASU move the ball with any consistency. Twenty-two of their points and 142 yards were in the fourth quarter.
Daniels completed 20 of 29 throws for 267 yards and the three fourth-quarter touchdowns, while adding 67 yards and another touchdown rushing. The Bruins were able to contain Benjamin, limiting him to 46 yards on 13 carries.
UCLA managed just one sack, but generated consistent pressure on Daniels to prevent him from attacking the nation's 128th ranked passing defense.
Darby had 110 yards on six catches, while Brandon Aiyuk had 82 on six grabs. Benjamin added 19 yards on three receptions, while Kyle Williams had a 41-yard catch.
It was a dispiriting showing for a group that was in dire need of a bounceback effort.
Through eight games, ASU has shown flashes of being an explosive offense on the ground and through the air, with Daniels showing star qualities. Yet, in part due to their youth, they have lacked the consistency needed to establish themselves as Pac-12 South contenders.
Now, they're left with many questions to answer in the days ahead.
“It’s how we overcome it,” Daniels said. “We have a bye week coming up, so we have a chance to regroup and finish strong these last couple games of the season.”
In recent weeks, UCLA's offense has shown some signs of life, led by the running of Kelley. ASU knew what the Bruins wanted to do, yet they could not stop it.
“The stuff we were doing, they were there to make plays,” Gonzales said. "They’ve got to make plays. We have to coach them better to make plays.”
Kelley's 164 yards and four touchdowns were the highlight, and Thompson-Robinson added 42 (pre-sacks) and Kameir Allen chipped in with 22. Following a strong showing against the run against Utah, ASU was pushed around in the trenches on Saturday.
“When you give up 219 yards rushing, it means you’re soft,” Gonzales said. “I’m going to challenge them.”
Like the offense, ASU's defense continued to struggle on getting off the field. UCLA converted 7-of-14 third downs, with three of those failures turning into fourth down conversions.
A major factor was fatigue. With UCLA's ability to sustain drives, and the ASU offense's inability to mount any, the Sun Devil defense played a lot of snaps. Through three quarters, UCLA held a 66-38 play advantage and a 29:39-15:21 edge in time of possession.
“We’re making mistakes that are allowing them to continue drives," Gonzales said. “We were in a position to make plays, and we didn’t make them.”
ASU did manage to generate three turnovers on the night, continuing a promising trend. They had four against Utah, but in the key moments, the Sun Devils still couldn't make the plays needed.
For much of the first eight games, ASU's defense has played well and carried the team through long stretches. Perhaps the burden is beginning to wear on them, but their coordinator believes it's just a matter of making the plays in front of them.
“It’s all execution," Gonzales said.
Last season, Joshua Kelley emerged as one of the better fee-good stories in the Pac-12. A transfer from FCS-level UC Davis, Kelley ran for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Bruins, although ASU held him to just 79 in the meeting
They had no answer for him on Saturday.
“When everybody in the stadium knows you’re going to run the ball and you’re still able to run the ball, that’s a credit to the whole group but really the mindset that Josh has," said UCLA head coach Chip Kelly. "When Josh plays well, we have a shot. And Josh played well tonight.”
Kelley ran 34 times for 164 yards and four touchdowns on the night. The UCLA offensive line routinely opened gapping holes in the Sun Devil defense.
"I could talk all day about the offensive line," Kelley said. "They’re amazing. Those guys are awesome for us, as a team. They played amazing tonight. They knew that they had a big challenge tonight, going up against a great defense. They were flat-out amazing. We can’t do what we did without that offensive line. They were spectacular. They deserve all the credit.”
The Big Picture
After the game, Likens admitted that ASU's 5-1 start and ascent to No. 17 in the polls may have impacted the team's mentality.
“You start thinking you deserve to win," Likens said. "But what we all need to understand is the cycle starts all over again on Sunday morning. You don’t deserve anything except the work you put in that week and how you come prepared.”
ASU's hopes for a Pac-12 South title are all but dead. They will need to win out, and then get a lot of help with losses from Utah, USC, and UCLA.
It's not going to happen, even in the always weird Pac-12.
Yet ASU still has a lot of play for over the next several weeks.
Three of their last four games come at home, and should they fix their penalty issues and dial in their defense, they should have a chance in each. Putting together an eight or nine-win season in year two of the program rebuild under Edwards would be an incredible accomplishment.
It's possible, but the Sun Devils will need to take several steps forward to get it.
“Are we going to accept the challenge, or are we going to fold?” Daniels said.
The Next Step
ASU heads into their second bye week of the 2019 season. They'll return to action on Nov. 2 when they host current Pac-12 South leader USC.
“We have to do a better of coaching, and we have to do a much better job of playing if we’re going to finish the season the way we’re capable of doing it," Edwards said.
The Extra Points
- When asked after the game if he had told his Bruin team that they now control their own destiny in the Pac-12 South race, the heac coach replied, "No, to be honest with you. Grammatically, destiny is a predetermined set of events, and if it’s a predetermined set of events you can’t control it. Think about that one.”