It was anything but easy, but Arizona State flexed its muscle late in the second half to muster out a win in an unexpectedly close game against Cal Poly and its triple option attack on offense.
Rebounding after its 38-17 loss to Texas A&M in Week 1, the Sun Devils (1-1) won 35-21 at Sun Devil Stadium in their home opener.
ASU went up early 14-0 against a clear underdog team in Cal Poly (1-1), but with a few critical errors, some undisciplined penalties and unforeseen errors on the defense, the Mustangs came storming back into a game they never should have been apart of. ASU's main frustrations arose from its inability to shut down Cal Poly’s triple-option attack with players consistently unable to locate the ball and stay on their assignments.
“The triple option is honestly difficult,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said after the game. “We’ve played it before we just didn’t handle the cut blocking. They were cut blocking us up front. We started off pretty good and then we just had people not taking their assignments. You have to be disciplined and take the dive. We could not get our ends to close on the dive."
In a physical battle in the trenches, ASU’s defense took some blows to their starting lineup. Junior defensive lineman Ami Latu sustained a leg injury early in the first quarter and didn’t return, sophomore corner Armand Perry appeared to have an ankle injury and junior linebacker Salamo Fiso appeared to sustain a leg injury as well.
“All the cut blocking you see how many ankles,” Graham said. “We got about four or five guys on crutches after that game. I wish they would outlaw that. I wish you couldn’t do it, but they’re good at it, they did a good job on it.”
The injuries even found its way over to the offensive side of ball. Senior offensive lineman Billy McGehee got injured early and didn’t return, junior running back De’Chavon Hayes left with under four minutes to play in the second quarter due to a hamstring injury, sophomore running back Demario Richard had to leave in the third quarter for a few plays after being banged up, and even senior wide receiver D.J. Foster looked to be limping around at the start of the second quarter.
“Obviously games like that are catastrophic if they go the other way,” Graham said. “When you go and win them, they make you better. I’m really proud of how our guys responded in the second half.”
The Mustangs, who won last week in a last-second field goal against Montana, had no clear threats on the offensive or defensive side of the ball, yet they hung in with a talented ASU team until mid-way of the fourth quarter.
ASU then solidified their win with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Bercovici to junior wide receiver Tim White with 2:08 left in the fourth quarter, ultimately making the final score 35-21.
Bercovici threw for 283 yards on the night, completing 23 of 35 passes with three touchdowns and one interception.
“We played our best football for the first 52 minutes and our worse football the last eight minutes,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “Coming from our level and who we are we have to play 60 great minutes to beat a football team. We played 52 really great minutes.”
The first touchdown catch in the fourth quarter was not only huge for ASU's offense, but also for Kohl, who had a critical fumble on a third and two on ASU's 32-yard line with 2:31 left in the second quarter.
“You know it was a minor slip up,” Bercovici said. “Something that happened, something in that situation we can see how important it is to keep the first down and stay on the field there, but at the end of the day we got to respond and come out in the 3rd quarter. At the end of the day we felt that it was a win, we have a lot of things to work on but Kody Kohl played a great game it was one minor slip up and I know that he won’t do that again.”
The mistake by Kohl allowed Cal Poly to drive down the field and score their second touchdown of the night, making the score 21-14 with ASU up going into halftime.
Building off that 1-yard touchdown by senior quarterback Chris Brown with nine seconds left to go in the first half, the Mustangs came out swinging in the third quarter.
With a little help by ASU’s undisciplined defense, Cal Poly was able to put together another touchdown drive. On the first play of the Mustangs first series in the third quarter, sophomore linebacker Christian Sam was called for a face mask penalty, allowing the Mustangs to start their drive on their own 48-yard line.
After six straight run plays by Cal Poly in their typical triple-option offense, the Mustangs completed their first completion of the night – a 21-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Chris Brown to sophomore tight end Reagan Enger.
With the Mustangs touchdown, it tied up the score, 21-21 with 11:47 left to play in the third quarter.
While ASU’s overall struggles were partially due to the Mustangs abilities to execute the triple option well, it was mostly due to ASU’s undisciplined errors. Special teams especially had their troubles. Freshman corner Kareem Orr had two special teams penalties, one was an illegal hands to the face penalty and the other was kick, catch interference. Sophomore running back Jacom Brimhall also almost lost a fumble on a punt return after failing to call a fair catch on the play.
In addition to a struggling ASU defense and special teams, the Sun Devil offense provided no clear assistance. ASU was inside Cal Poly’s 10-yard line twice in its next three drives in the second half after Cal Poly tied up the game 21-21 and the Sun Devils ended up with zero points on both of those drives.
On the Sun Devils first chance to respond, their offense failed to deliver in their seventh series of the night. After ASU got the ball down to Cal Poly’s 9-yard line, things took a turn for the worse. The Sun Devils were unable to get in the end zone after Richard was stopped short twice and Kohl had a drop in the back of the end zone. When fourth down came around, ASU took a shot again -- this time to junior wide receiver Devin Lucien in a corner route -- but Bercovici's pass was intercepted, ending the drive.
On ASU’s next scoring opportunity, the Sun Devils gave sophomore kicker Zane Gonzalez a chance to at least put three points up on the board, but he missed a 28-yard field goal wide right with under 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
ASU's offense struggles were clear, but there were bright spots. Lucien was the leading wide receiver of the night, catching seven passes for 79 yards after only catching the ball once against the Aggies last week.
ASU’s run game showed its worth only in the first half alone with Richard rushing for 77 yards on 16 carries in addition to scoring two touchdowns. Against Texas A&M last week, the 5-foot-10, 220-pound back had 17 carries for 73 yards on the night with no touchdowns.
“You know we were just doing what we were coached to do, we were being discipline on our reads and listening to the captains on offense,” Richard said. “Actually, the playbook, the scheme we ran this week was a great scheme so you know we were just doing what we were coached to and focusing on our detail.”
Richard finished the game against the Mustangs with 25 carries for 121 yards and three touchdowns. In addition to catching six passes for 58 yards, senior running back D.J. Foster was given the ball in the backfield 12 times and ran for 76 yards, averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
Foster has now accounted for at least one reception in each of the 42 games he has played at ASU, the longest active streak in FBS.
Foster had a bit of an accelerated work load, with junior running back De’Chavon Hayes appearing to be injured with less than four minutes to go in the second quarter. Hayes had his leg wrapped on the trainers table and Graham said after the game Hayes had a hamstring injury.
Despite all the injuries to the once considered deep running back group, freshman running back Jason Lewis did not see the field, meaning his redshirt is still on the table.
ASU struck first on the night with Bercovici throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver D.J. Foster to make the score 7-0 with 8:14 left in the first quarter.
Starting at their own 23-yard line in their second series of the game, the Sun Devils controlled the tempo, handing off the ball consistently to Richard four-straight times. After establishing the run, ASU took to the air with Bercovici launching one to Chambers for a 30-yard catch mid-drive to push the Devils to Cal Poly’s 18-yard line. The combination of run and pass opened up the Cal Poly defense, leaving them exposed for Foster’s 14-yard touchdown.
In the first quarter alone, ASU gained 144 yards compared to Cal Poly’s 50 yards. ASU’s defense was dominant, forcing Cal Poly into two straight opening three and out series.