10 Takeaways: Washington State

How did such an impressive start to a game turn so sour for Arizona State at Washington State. We go in-depth on it.

1. Arizona State start to the game was so good that it really looked like a blowout was possible. It dominated the line of scrimmage and had perhaps its best half from its offensive line all season and sophomore running back Demario Richard was pin-balling into the Washington State second and third level repeatedly in getting out to a 14-0 start. The Sun Devils got back to a potent power run game with seniors Christian Westerman and Vi Teofilo being the pull blockers. It was working left or right against the Cougars, who had just six men in the box. Defensively, ASU forced the Cougars into consecutive three and outs -- aided by a drop by River Cracraft on third and 6 -- and then quarterback Luke Falk threw an interception to a deep-in-zone freshman safety Kareem Orr which gave it a chance to go up 21-0. It looked like the game would be a blowout. 

2. The play-calling of Mike Norvell early in the game was scripted and sensational. He got senior D.J. Foster into the slot working against hybrid linebacker/safety Parker Henry, who is athletically limited from a coverage standpoint. He successfully utilized perimeter screens to take advantage of the Cougars' soft cornerback coverage. He dialed up one power run after the next and then, on the third drive immediately after the Orr interception, he feigned power and turned it into a modified buck sweep on first down when he identified the Cougars were going to commit their boundary safety down into the box in anticipation of power. When ASU got the ball to third and 1 at the 2 yard line he even went under center with an I-formation jumbo with two extra offensive linemen and freshman Jay Jay Wilson at fullback. Richard would have walked into the end zone but senior right guard Billy McGehee didn't see the safety attacking on his down block and didn't pick it up. On fourth and 2, even though it didn't work, the naked bootleg with two tight end options was a good play, just very well defended. But it was an empty red zone trip. 

3. The first crack came as the Cougars put together a 17-play, 92 yard drive that took more than seven minutes but they were only able to get a field goal out of it. Then ASU started moving the ball easily again on its fourth possession with the score 14-3 and after 52 yards on just six plays, senior wide receiver Devin Lucien fumbled the ball away on the Cougars' 23 yard line. ASU should have at least gotten a field goal out of that drive and would have scored a touchdown from third and 1 if it secured just one block. At this point in the game, a 24-3 score was probably what we should have seen on the board. The Cougars then move the ball to the cusp of scoring territory at the ASU 37 but Falk is sacked on two of three plays, first by redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson -- the first solo sack of his career -- and then by sophomore D.J. Calhoun and the Cougars have to punt. Then ASU has its worst possession of the half, a three out in which it went backwards, a punt by junior Matt Haack -- his first of the game -- was a low liner with Haack looking he he's coming in cold off the bench, and it gets returned to the ASU 16 yard line. 

4. I wanted to walk through the whole game unfolding to the point of the so-called fifth down play that the Cougars got due to an officiating error. The Sun Devils forced WSU into a fourth and 5 which it went for and didn't get but the officials ruled an inadvertent whistle meant the down should be replayed. The Pac-12 later ruled this was an error and the player's forward momentum had been stopped, which meant it should have been ruled dead. Instead, the Cougars get another fourth down. They start with two receivers on the field side, as the slot receiver motions to across, senior cornerback Kweishi Brown, who is playing outside leverage, communicates with freshman safety Kareem Orr. Orr is supposed to have the inside slant help. He's late with the read though and the play goes for a touchdown, with Brown being unfocused at the snap. So now it's 14-10 and really, it should bea minimum  24-3 as I see it if ASU executes one play, doesn't fumble, the refs don't err. 

5. On ASU's first drive of the second half, junior tight end Kody Kohl missed a block, then senior Vi Teofilo had a false start, ASU moved backwards and had to punt. In the first half, Kohl had a number of very good blocks and this was a pretty routine play that he missed. It was how these things happened back-to-back that stalled out ASU's drive after eight plays and 38 yards in three minutes. That's when the mustard really started to fall off the hot dog for the ASU defense. To this point in the game they'd done very well, given up 162 yards of offense and 10 points, but 11 of those yards and seven of those points were on the refs. They'd given up one long drive. From this point on, the Cougars had touchdown drives of 94 yards on nine plays, 73 yards on 8 plays, 99 yards on 7 plays and 75 yards on 1 play. That is a remarkably bipolar performance. 

6. ASU senior cornerbacks Brown and Lloyd Carrington each played poorly in the second half. Carrington has been very good for the most part this season but had his worst half of the year. He missed jam attempts at the line of scrimmage on several big play connections in man coverage on his assignment. The final touchdown dagger by the Cougars, the one play 75 yard touchdown, was a simple 5 yard hitch that was taken almost untouched for seven points against Carrington. That can't happen. Brown has been repeatedly picked on by one Pac-12 opponent after another and underperformed his potential this season, for certain. After a great camp, Brown entered this season with an outside chance at making an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent but the film doesn't lie and it's hard to imagine he gets that shot now. Orr has been thrust into a difficult position and is never going to be able to say he didn't get a chance to learn on the job. But the learning's come at the expense of structural integrity on the back end. Or will probably end up a great player but he comes from a mediocre level of high school and you can tell his head is swimming on the field. He's not identified play tendencies before the snap, understood why and how pre-snap motion is important to his assignment, been very hesitant because he's not wanted to make a mistake. It was a horrible half of football for the ASU secondary as a whole. The most alarming thing about it is that ASU didn't blitz nearly as much as normal. 

7. I don't think there can any doubt at this point that junior Spur Laiu Moeakiola isn't totally healthy. Moeakiola is a great player when he's operating at full strength but he delivered a big hit early in the schedule, appeared to be bothered by the shoulder he injured last season immediately thereafter, and has been fighting through something ever since. It's really hard to play when you can't be your normal self and are thinking about it. One one of the Cougars' biggest plays -- and ASU's biggest busts -- of the second half, one play after Moeakiola made a physical tackle, he had a bad blown assignment which is totally unlike him. Immediately after that, Moeakiola asked out and redshirt freshman Das Tautalatasi came onto the field and he had a breakdown on the Cougars' touchdown play of the drive. 

8. Norvell actually called a really good game for the most part and had a great gameplan, but with ASU trailing 31-21 with 7:57 left in the fourth quarter I felt like he and the Sun Devils were trying to do too much, too quickly. They started to air the ball out and only went 12 yards in six plays. If  you look at their earlier scoring drives, they weren't forcing the action and had touchdowns on drives of 2:13 and 2:20. When the ASU offense is just operating normally, it is going to get a lot of scoring drives of less than a few minutes, which would have given it plenty of time to get the ball back and either tie or win the game. But I think there was a bit of pressing, perhaps with Mike Bercovici as well, they had to punt. ASU got a field goal, its lone points of the fourth quarter when it did have to start hurrying on its next drive, but then the Cougars connected on the one play 75 yard touchdown immediately after. 

9. ASU just hasn't been able to close out games. It held leads in the fourth quarter in three straight games, all losses. Really good teams win those games, and certainly there's some luck involved. This game shouldn't have been as close as it was but it's hard to feel bad for an ASU team that gave up almost as many yards in the fourth quarter as it did the rest of the game to that point. It has just folded in the fourth quarter defensively. Todd Graham is going to have to look at why that is. The breakdowns have been way too many this year and ASU's giving up the most yards per reception in the Pac-12. 

10. Red zone success and turnover margin are a strong undercurrent of this season for the Sun Devils and this game was a microcosm of that. They're among the worst in the Pac-12 at turning red zone trips into touchdowns. Last season they scored touchdowns on all six trips inside the red zone against the Cougars. This year they got touchdowns on three of five drives and got no points on one drive. Last year they forced Falk into four interceptions, this year they had just one in the first quarter and got zero points off of it, and they didn't get any fumble recoveries. They're last in the Pac-12 in turnover margin after being first or second in the Pac-12 in each of the last two seasons. That's how you go from being a 10 win team to a team fighting for bowl eligibility in mid-November. 


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