For the third straight game, Arizona State held a lead early in the fourth quarter only to relinquish the advantage and suffer a devastating defeat.
The Sun Devils’ loss to Washington State on Saturday might have been the most stunning of the three, considering the fashion in which ASU crumbled.
Saturday marked the 30th time ASU owned a halftime lead under head coach Todd Graham, and just the second occasion in which the Sun Devils lost a game under Graham in which they led at the half.
Much like the previous week against Oregon, ASU had plenty of opportunities to take command of the game early, but failed to do so.
Instead, the Sun Devils turned the ball over on downs near the goal line, and allowed Washington State’s comeback campaign to begin.
The failed fourth down and goal conversion attempt was emblematic of the type of season it has been for the Sun Devils. They came close to finding success, but this season, coming close has more often than not turned disastrous.
“Our guys are playing hard,” Graham said at his Monday press conference. “I can’t fault how hard we’re playing, we’re playing till the end of the whistle, till the end of the game, we’re playing very well. In a very competitive league, it’s going to be competitive, you watch the first part of that game, man, we’re fixing to go up 21-0 and then, not doing what we’re supposed to do in very critical times, not executing, and that results in losing close games.”
In Graham’s first three seasons, it was the close games the Sun Devils won with practically overwhelming frequency.
Over the past few years, there were close games in which ASU’s coaches and players simply outperformed their counterparts down to the final whistle, and then there were contests like the 2013 Wisconsin victory or last season’s USC win that required a bit of luck in the closing moments.
This season, the Sun Devils appear to be paying the price for having luck on their side in the past.
“Last year we won those games, and this year we haven’t,” Graham said. “It doesn’t matter why, but you’ve got to flip that and turn that.”
Against Oregon, a triple overtime touchdown pass from quarterback Vernon Adams to wide receiver Bralon Addison was ruled a completion, even though replays showed Addison’s toes appearing to touch the end line when he hauled in the reception.
Then, right before halftime against Washington State, an apparent fourth down stop in the red zone was nullified due to an inadvertent whistle, and the Cougars’ subsequently scored on the next play.
Still, it would be foolish to cite officiating issues as the overriding reason behind the Sun Devils’ three consecutive fourth quarter breakdowns, as Graham acknowledged ASU has been making some of its most critical mistakes at the most important junctures of games.
“We’ve had more this year than we’ve had and what I mean by critical errors, is a critical error is when we blow an assignment and leave somebody completely uncovered,” Graham said. “That’s coaching, that’s also preparation and accountability by the players.”
In its past two contests, ASU has suffered a significant amount of critical breakdowns in the defensive backfield, including one play that served as the back-breaker in the fourth quarter against Washington State.
Trailing by seven and needing a defensive stop with under five minutes to play, ASU allowed Falk to connect with senior wide receiver Dom Williams for a one-play, 75-yard scoring strike on a five-yard slant route that cemented the Sun Devils’ fate.
The defensive lapse couldn’t have come at a worse time for ASU, and was yet another instance of the Sun Devils’ opponents seizing an opportunity bestowed on them by an internal breakdown.
“We just had seven critical errors, and I mean simple stuff, where we basically left people uncovered on a slant,” Graham said. “I mean, I was just frustrated after the game, and I want to make sure I’m very clear, the season’s not over. I’ve said this has been a disappointing season to this point, which was left out.”
Even on the heels of three disappointing results, Graham insists ASU is close to where he wants the program to be at this point in the season.
When asked about the frustration that comes from losing late leads, Graham put his index finger next to his thumb and said the difference between being 7-2 and being 4-5 is about “that much.”
That air-tight margin was the difference on Saturday, as the Sun Devils bottled up the Cougar passing attack for the better part of three quarters much like they did against Utah’s rushing attack three weeks ago.
Graham said the Sun Devils never allowed the Cougars to complete their major route concepts, and the coverage ASU played in the secondary was solid for three quarters of play.
But in the end, the Sun Devils’ inability to put the Cougars away early left ASU subject to a comeback.
“We’re very, very close,” Graham said. “We marched the ball down the field the first two series and score, obviously could have gone up 21. Obviously there’s a lot of things there early, but we really defensively, they didn’t complete any of their major route concepts throughout the whole game.”
On Saturday, ASU will have yet another chance to rectify its recent late-game struggles against a Washington team with an identical 4-5 record.
Though ASU starts a fifth-year senior quarterback in Mike Bercovici and Washington starts a true freshman in Jake Browning, both players have learned on the fly in their first full seasons as starting quarterbacks at the college level.
Bercovici and Browning are each commandeering offenses that have faced their fair share of criticism this season for a lack of consistency and rhythm. While ASU ranks ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring offense at 31.4 points per game, Washington checks in at 11th in the conference at 26.7 points per game.
Graham said on Monday he thought ASU would score more points this season than it ever has during his tenure, but instead, the Sun Devils are slogging through their worst offensive season yet. After Graham’s press conference, Bercovici tried to explain the lack of offensive explosiveness.
“Obviously big plays are something that are critical to big wins, and just sustaining that effect on defense is something we've got to do a better job of,” Bercovici said. “It starts with me as a quarterback, and then obviously protection. Everything goes into big plays, whether it be protections, running backs blocking, wide receivers getting on the defense. So it's something that we're just going to have to -- we have to have a sense of when those plays need to happen.”
It could be especially challenging for the Sun Devils to produce explosive plays against Washington on Saturday. Though the Huskies offense hasn’t produced many fireworks this season, a defense that had to replace three players selected among the first 44 picks in the NFL Draft is leading the conference in scoring defense.
The Huskies are surrendering just 18.8 points per game, and haven’t allowed more than 34 points in a single contest all season.
With both teams fighting for bowl eligibility and needing two wins in their final three games to lock down a postseason berth, Graham said the Huskies’ defense represents a tough challenge for ASU and one it has to find a way to exploit if the Sun Devils hope to reverse their recent fortunes.
“We’ve got a challenge this week, probably the best defensive football team we’ve played probably since Utah, and we’ve got to go get this thing back on track,” Graham said.
While the season hasn’t gone as planned for ASU, Saturday’s game serves as another measuring stick for the program. Will the Sun Devils continue their slide and match the program’s longest losing streak under Graham, or will the team back up its coach’s word and prove its resiliency on the field?
Graham said even though the program hasn’t lived up to expectations, it doesn’t give the Sun Devils an excuse to dwell on their troubles. With the foundation that ASU has formed over more than three and a half seasons, Graham is confident the program is still heading in the right direction.
“You’ve got to put your big boy pants on,” Graham said. “You can’t hide from the expectations. We’re always going to have those expectations. We have from day one, and we just have not won the close games and we’ve got to get those things corrected. But big picture, we’ve laid the foundation. And it’s not on sand, it’s on concrete.”