Pass defense abandons ASU late in team's third straight loss

Arizona State was outscored 21-3 in the fourth quarter and lost a game for a third time in a row in which it held a lead in the final quarter on Saturday against Washington State.

PULLMAN, Wash. -- In keeping with his usual post-game ritual, Arizona State Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson was waiting for his football head coach Todd Graham in the end zone Saturday. 

The two men shook hands quickly after the game, but this was no moment of celebration. Far from it. 

"That's as bad as it gets," Graham said to his boss regarding the Sun Devils' dreary 38-24 loss to Washington State, which earned bowl eligibility at 6-3 overall and 4-2 in the Pac-12. 

With his brow furrowed, Graham then hurried off in an attempt to find the right words to say to ASU team that now has lost three straight Pac-12 games and at 4-5 (2-4) on the season, is in real danger of not making a bowl game. 

Fans too, no doubt want to hear something from the coach that helps make sense of why a season that Graham initially said had so much promise, has turned into the worst of his four years in Tempe. 

"We've lost our fifth game," Graham said, with a hint of incredulity in his hoarse voice. "This is a disappointing season, I mean disappointing. And ultimately I’m responsible for it."

ASU had a lead early in the fourth quarter for the third straight game, and yet lost for the third straight time. This, despite Todd Graham having a 28-1 record when leading at halftime until Saturday. 

The Cougars entered the fourth quarter with just 264 yards of total offense and 17 points but exploded for 248 yards and 21 points in the fourth quarter alone, behind sophomore quarterback Luke Falk. 

A year after he threw for 601 yards with four interceptions in a 52-31 loss to ASU in Tempe last season in just his second career start, Falk completed 36 of 55 passes for 497 yards and five touchdowns with just one early interception. 

In the fourth quarter alone, Falk led the Cougars on touchdown drives of 73 yards, 99 yards and 75 yards. None took more than eight plays. The last one took just one play, a five yard hitch reception that was followed by a 70 yard rush that put the game to its final score with four minutes left. 

ASU, meanwhile, could only muster one field goal in the fourth quarter. 

With ASU holding a 24-21 lead it acquired 1:27 into the fourth quarter on a workmanlike 17-play, 65 yard drive that culminated with a Bercovici 1 yard touchdown run, the Cougars completely took over in a manner reminiscent of the Sun Devils fourth-quarter collapse against Utah a few weeks ago. 

Th e fashion in which ASU unraveled in this game was different than against the Utes, but in the end it was still threadbare. 

On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Cougars converted a fourth and 1 from their own 36 yard line on a 16 yard completion to Cougars' leading receiver Gabe Marks, a foreshadowing of what was to follow.  

Falk hit receiver Kyle Sweet on a 36 yard completion three plays later and followed that up with a touchdown that gave the Cougars a 24-21 advantage. 

After the Sun Devils went three and out, Falk connected on a 47 yard completion to wide receiver Robert Lewis, which not coincidentally came on the first play of the game in which junior Spur Laiu Moeakiola wasn't on the field for the ASU defense. 

Moeakiola, who hasn't appeared fully healthy much of the season, was being checked out on the trainer's table while recent redshirt freshman Spur convert Das Tautalatasi had the big coverage breakdown against Lewis. Four plays later the Cougars took a 31-21 lead on Falk's fourth touchdown throw of the night. 

"In the second half went Laiu (Moeakiola) went down it was totally discombobulated," Graham said "We had great coverage -- perfect coverage -- then one person came completely off their guy."

A continuing trend from ASU's triple overtime 61-55 loss to Oregon a week and a half ago, the Sun Devils had a slew of coverage busts, especially in the second half, when a number of short throws went to receivers with no defender in the area and an almost unbelievable number of yards after the catch. 

"We got the ball out and had our chances, and I thought we had the game pretty much in control at halftime, we only gave up 10 points and 150 yards of offense, but unfortunately you play two halves and we made critical error after critical error," Graham said. "You have to give Washington State credit, they executed and found it. I thought their quarterback did a good job staying alive and making things happen. We just played very poorly defensively."

Moeakiola came back onto the field for the Sun Devils later in the fourth quarter, but it didn't matter. Rubbing salt in ASU's defensive wounds, Falk hit wide receiver Dom Williams on a short hitch that he nonetheless was able to take into the end zone untouched for a 75 yard touchdown. 

Much earlier in the afternoon, ASU seemed to be headed for an impressive showing. The Sun Devils scored touchdown on their first two drives of the game, moving the ball easily with sophomore Demario Richard piling up yards on the ground. The 14-0 lead included forcing Washington State into three and outs on each of its first two drives. 

But with ASU leading 14-3, the Cougars got a big break from the Pac-12 officiating crew. On fourth and 5 Washington State was stopped short of the goal to gain on the ASU 11 yard line, but got another chance at the play due to what was termed an inadvertent whistle. On the re-do, the Cougars scored their first touchdown of the day, an 11 yard pass to Williams that made the game 14-10 with 5:46 left in the second quarter, a lot closer than it felt. 

“Boy I better not talk about that," Graham said. "It’s been pretty frustrating the last couple weeks."

In the loss, the Sun Devils wasted a lot of impressive individual efforts. 

Richard had 111 rushing yards -- his fifth 100-yard game of the season -- on just 18 carries and added six catches for 16 yards. But Richard got just 10 carries after the first quarter. 

Senior Bandit safety Jordan Simone entered the game leading the Pac-12 and second in FBS with 7.4 solo tackles per game and had 13 tackles on Saturday, 11 of which were solo. 

Freshman field safety Kareem Orr intercepted his fourth pass of the season, which is the most since 1983 when David Fulcher also had four. 

Perhaps most impressively, ASU senior D.J. Foster -- who led the Sun Devils with seven catches for 71 yards -- had a reception in his 49th straight game, which is a Pac-12 record. Foster has at least one catch in every game he's played in at ASU. 

The Sun Devils held their fifth opponent of the season under 100 yards rushing Saturday, but they've lost in three of those games, an indication of just how much they've struggled in other facets, especially passing defense, in which they ranked last in the Pac-12 ahead of Saturday and only got worse, and red zone conversions. 

Bercovici completed 27 of 44 passes Saturday for 229 yards but had no touchdowns, and ASU only scored touchdowns on two of its five red zone opportunities, a stark contrast to last season against the Cougars when they got touchdowns on all six such trips. 

"We started off really solid," Bercovici said. "Credit to the Cougars' defense. They played hard and swarmed to the ball for four quarters. They made adjustments, but like I said, as an offense and as a quarterback we need to make sure to move the sticks. We did a poor job -- I did a poor job -- of converting and it boise down to turnovers and third down ratio."

Now the two teams are headed on different trajectories, with the Cougars winning six of their last eight games and on their best start to a season since 2006. The Sun Devils, meanwhile, are off to their worst start to a season since Dennis Erickson's team went 4-6 through 10 games in the 2010 season. 

It's an especially bitter pill to swallow given how well regard the Sun Devils were to start the season and in light of Graham's public comments about it being his best team ever. 

"I know the players believe in what we’re doing," Graham said. "We’ve got great young men who believe in each other, believe in what we’re doing. We have done a very poor job of bringing that together. You have to get that synergy and that rhythm as a team and we've had no rhythm. We have a lot to play for now and that is getting these seniors to a bowl game. We also have the Territorial Cup left, and this program more importantly. We need to go win, we've come too far to come and play like that, that's the worst performance , in my opinion, that we've had, defensively."

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