Sun Devils unable to overcome litany of self-inflicted wounds

Despite having more than enough offensive production, Arizona State failed to turn yards into enough points and undid themselves with a long string of mistakes and missed opportunities in Thursday's 61-55 loss to Oregon

As kickoff approached on Thursday evening, Mother Nature brought a light rainfall upon Sun Devil Stadium, but even the showers couldn’t come close to foreshadowing the chaotic storm Arizona State and Oregon would soon unleash. 

More than four hours after the rain dissipated, the game came to an abrupt ending, leaving the Sun Devils standing motionless along their sideline, reeling in a state of collective shock.

After Arizona State redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici tossed a game-sealing interception to bring Thursday’s seesaw ride of a football game to an end in triple overtime, the Sun Devils returned to their locker room 4-4 on the season, a team as puzzled by its season results as it was by Thursday’s outcome.

A victory that seemed within ASU’s grasp throughout the fourth quarter, the second overtime and even late into the third overtime slipped away at a moment’s notice, leaving the Sun Devils wondering what could have been.

The Sun Devils have been searching for answers for the better part of two months since a season-opening loss against Texas A&M, but Thursday’s game opened up an entirely new set of questions for ASU.

How did a team that began the season with such high expectations become a unit fighting for bowl eligibility? How did a program seemingly on the rise take such an unexpected step back? Better yet, how did a team that put up more than 700 yards of offense and 55 points just lose a football game?

“That one hurt as bad as any one I've had since I've been here,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said in a rather matter of fact manner.

After falling 61-55 in the highest combined scoring game in ASU history, Graham and the Sun Devils were stunned about the result, and just as stunned by the sequence of events that led up to the ultimate outcome.

Though the elusive, play-making capabilities of Oregon redshirt senior quarterback Vernon Adams and controversial officiating were overarching themes from Thursday’s game, ASU had a multitude of opportunities to take command of the game, and routinely failed to do so.

Trouble was evident from the outset for the Sun Devils, who failed to score on their first four drives of the game against a Ducks’ defense that entered play ranked last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, total defense, and passing defense.

Twice in those four possessions ASU drove to within field goal territory, and once, the Sun Devils even held the ball inside the Ducks’ 10-yard line.

Still, an end zone drop from redshirt senior wide receiver Devin Lucien, followed by a false start from Lucien led to a missed 26-yard field goal attempt from junior kicker Zane Gonzalez, and the Sun Devils came up empty on a possession that nearly always nets a minimum of three points.

The following possession, Bercovici failed to throw the ball away on third down, and took an eight-yard sack that turned a 44-yard field goal attempt into a 52-yard attempt Gonzalez would miss wide left.

“We miss a chip shot field goal,” Graham said. “That was critical. Obviously we had a 54 and a 51. Those are ones you don't always expect to hit.”

After failing to score on their first four possessions, the Sun Devils rebounded from an early 10-point deficit, and managed to score 55 points despite being kept off the scoreboard for the entirety of the first quarter.

Early in the second half, ASU had its first true chance to leave the Ducks in their rearview mirror. The Sun Devils owned a 60-29 advantage in terms of total plays, and after a 22-yard touchdown run from sophomore running back Demario Richard, ASU held a 24-17 lead and was beginning to impose its will at the line of scrimmage.

On a 24-7 run after trailing 10-0, ASU knew a defensive stand following the touchdown could leave the Ducks gasping for wind. And the Sun Devils nearly came up with that stand, save for an uncharacteristic personal foul penalty committed by sophomore defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood on a third down and 10 that kept the Ducks’ drive alive.

The 15-yard infraction prevented ASU from notching a three-and-out, and keyed an 11-play, 56-yard drive that culminated in a field goal to bring the Ducks within four points.

“We just did some things that are very uncharacteristic of our football team,” Graham said. “We had I think 10 penalties. I think nine were recorded but we had 10, they declined one, and penalties that cost us. Undisciplined things. Punching somebody after the whistle. We've never gotten one penalty like that since I've been here. Ten penalties defensively. Very poorly prepared.”

While Graham was taken aback by the lack of discipline, he couldn’t have been surprised by a familiar lapse that came back to haunt ASU after capping off a 6-play, 75-yard scoring drive to take a 31-20 lead.

Even after Smallwood’s penalty aided a Ducks’ scoring drive, the Sun Devils were continuing to assert an edge over the Ducks, but Oregon sophomore kick returner Charles Nelson responded to the ASU touchdown with a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown that pulled Oregon back within four points.

The special teams’ gaffe gave the Ducks an extended lift on their side of the seesaw, and Oregon soon struck again to regain the lead on a play that has epitomized ASU’s defensive struggles in the Graham era.

With such a blitz-oriented defensive approach, ASU often depends on linebackers and safeties to make plays in one-on-one situations and a lone missed assignment can trigger an explosive play. Late in the third quarter, a missed assignment left the Sun Devils in a one-on-zero situation, and redshirt sophomore running back Kani Benoit took a handoff 62 yards to the house to give Oregon a 34-31 lead.

“It’s really frustrating,” redshirt senior safety Jordan Simone said. “Us, as a defense, we never want to give up anything like that -- too many critical errors and things that we can control. I always say, ‘We have to do what we’re coached to do at the end of the day.’ Sometimes we didn’t.”

All things considered, and that includes missed opportunities, penalties and explosive plays, ASU was still in position to put the Ducks away in the closing minutes of the game. The Sun Devils responded to Oregon’s 34-31 lead with a 33-yard field goal to tie the game, and a Bercovici touchdown pass to junior tight end Kody Kohl gave ASU a 41-34 advantage with 7:42 remaining.

After forcing a three-and-out, ASU drove into Oregon territory with a chance to go up two scores with under seven minutes on the clock. Facing a first down and 10, ASU seemingly induced Oregon into an offside penalty, and snapped the ball to elicit a flag from the officiating crew.

Once an offense sees a flag in this type of situation, it can take a chance knowing it has a “free play” at its disposal. However, ASU never saw a flag, and Bercovici lofted an ill-advised pass into coverage that was intercepted by redshirt sophomore safety Tyree Robinson.

 

Instead of securing a victory with a time-consuming, game-sealing drive, ASU put the ball back in the hands of the Ducks, and though Graham insisted the Sun Devils protected the ball well all night, Oregon would make Bercovici pay.

 

“We took care of the football for the most part,” Graham said. “I mean, the one interception, we thought they had jumped off-sides, and evidently they didn't. Quarterback thought that they jumped off-sides and was taking a shot down the field. That was one turnover that we had.”

 

As if ASU hadn’t made enough crippling mistakes in regulation, the 5:02 remaining in the game left the Sun Devils with a few more opportunities to let the Ducks have a final say in the outcome.

 

ASU never relented in its pressure of Adams on Oregon’s final drive, and the shifty gunslinger evaded tackle after tackle in the backfield as he drove the Ducks down the field.  

After using his evasiveness to dodge a would-be-sack and convert a third and 16 early in the drive, Adams saved his best move for a desperation heave. On fourth and goal from the ASU eight-yard line, Adams rolled to his right to escape the pocket and tossed the ball high in the air toward the end zone. A pair of Ducks’ players collided, and miraculously, redshirt junior wide receiver Dwayne Stanford came down with the football to haul in a game-tying touchdown reception with just 12 seconds left on the game clock.

 

“I was just trying to scramble around, just trying to buy time and find someone open,” Adams said. “When I was scrambling (one) way, everybody started going (the other) way, and the wind stayed over here. I saw him and just threw it. It was an awesome catch by him.”

 

Adams’ heave and Stanford’s catch forced the Sun Devils into playing an overtime that never should have happened. ASU let far too many opportunities slide away, and Graham said the final defensive series was among the worst.

 

“What killed us is we couldn't tackle,” Graham said. “We had the quarterback dead to rights and couldn't get him down. I mean, you got them fourth and whatever it was, 12, 11, we got him dead to rights in the backfield. Guy scrambles around, bounces off of us, throws up a prayer. One guy comes off his man. Got to stay on your man, you know. So that was pretty disheartening.”

 

As the seesaw affair continued well past regulation, ASU saw a glimmer of hope in the third overtime period. The Sun Devils allowed a touchdown on the Ducks’ possession, but stopped their subsequent two-point conversion meaning ASU could win the game with a touchdown and conversion of its own.

 

Immediately following the Ducks’ failed conversion, Bercovici hit junior wide receiver Tim White for a 22-yard gain to push ASU down to the Oregon 3-yard line.

 

And then, disaster struck.

 

An offense searching for an identity all year had finally found the right balance on Thursday night. ASU torched the Ducks for 742 total yards, marking the worst defensive performance in Oregon history. The Sun Devils found an ideal run-pass balance as Bercovici tossed for 398 yards while Richard and fellow sophomore running back Kalen Ballage helped the Sun Devils record two 100-yard rushing performances in the same game for the first time since they did it against Navy in 2012.

ASU rode Richard and Ballage on critical downs all night, leading to an astounding 14-for-23 third down conversion rate and more than 7.0 yard per carry averages for each player. But in overtime, the pair was nowhere to be found.

On first and goal from the 3-yard line, ASU needed a touchdown and a conversion, yet even to that point, neither player had heard his number called upon since the end of regulation. Instead of pounding the ball into the end zone, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell channeled the Seattle Seahawks’ scheme in the Super Bowl, and elected to pass.

 

The decision would prove fateful, as a first down pass was tipped away and nearly intercepted. But on second down, the Sun Devils weren’t so lucky, as Ducks’ sophomore defensive back Arrion Springs reeled in the game-clinching interception that sent Oregon into a frenzy and ASU into shock.

 

“The play was simple, the play was called in and we executed it,” Bercovici said. “As a quarterback I told myself to make sure the ball gets completed or thrown away. It’s on me at the end of the game putting the ball in jeopardy like that.”

 

After the game, Bercovici took responsibility for that play, and Graham accepted the blame for failing to have his team prepared to play.

 

Somehow, some way, ASU became the fifth team out of 100 in the last 15 seasons to record more than 700 yards of offense, collect 55 points, and still lose a football game.

 

Next Saturday, the 4-4 Sun Devils take their .500 record on the road to Pullman, Washington to battle the team that most recently shared ASU’s rather unfortunate distinction. Last season, Washington State fell to California after racking up more than 700 yards of offense and 59 points, and this year, the Cougars are much more of a threat in the Pac-12 conference.

 

At 5-2, the Cougars present all kinds of issues for ASU, but right now, the Sun Devils have plenty of problems of their own to worry about. Through fall camp and early parts of the season, Graham called this year’s team the best he’s ever coached.

 

On Thursday, ASU gave him one reason after another to prove that’s not the case, and in the end, the results bear it out. After Bercovici’s overtime interception, the Sun Devils stood in silence on their sideline, trying to conjure up an explanation for this season’s struggles even their leader can’t seem to put his finger on.

 

“I don't,” Graham said when asked if he had an answer for why ASU has failed to perform. “Disappointed.”

 


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