Sun Devils fall to Cougars 37-32 in close finish

ASU starting quarterback Manny Wilkins left Saturday's game in the first quarter, forcing freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole to take over for the Sun Devils.

Arizona State had seen this story before.

Last season, ASU was up 14-0 against Washington State before losing a fourth-quarter lead to fall 38-24 against the Cougars at Martin Stadium on Nov. 7, 2015.

Saturday night, the Sun Devils held a 14-3 lead before WSU stormed ahead, scoring 28 straight points as the crowd in Tempe started to trickle out of Sun Devil Stadium on homecoming weekend. Midway through the second half, ASU started to break out of its slump, but couldn't catch the Cougars, who beat ASU 37-32. 

"Obviously this one hurts because there's guys like (linebacker) Salamo Fiso and (defensive lineman) Viliami Latu and (linebacker) Laiu Moeakiola and (tight end) Kody Kohl, the seniors," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "(Offensive lineman) Evan Goodman, just (wide receiver) Tim White, those guys, that one really hurts because it felt like we could really win the game, but just made some critical mistakes at crucial times, but i'm really proud of our football team.

"The whole time there we felt like we would come back and win so obviously disappointing, but I told those guys that I don't think I've ever been more proud of them. Their heart and effort they showed." 

With the win, WSU improves to 5-2 overall, 4-0 in the Pac-12. WSU is 4-0 in conference play for the first time since 2003. The Cougars are now tied with Washington for the top spot in the Pac-12 North after the Huskies beat Oregon State 41-17 at Husky Stadium on Saturday. 

With the loss, ASU drops to 5-3 overall, 2-3 in conference play. The Sun Devils have now lost two-straight conference games after their 40-16 loss to Colorado on Oct. 15. ASU will face Oregon next week in Eugene, Oregon after the Ducks lost 52-49 in double-overtime to California Friday night.

The Sun Devils will look to avoid a three-game losing streak for the second-consecutive season, but their quarterback situation remains in flux after ASU freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole entered the game for an injured Manny Wilkins with 5:35 remaining in the first quarter. Wilkins was 5-of-6 for 39 yards before exiting the contest. 

“Yeah, he (Wilkins) got hurt,” Graham said. “He’s a warrior. He got the hit, and it wasn’t safe for him to go back in so it was definitely something he couldn’t do. At the end he was telling coach, ‘If you need to run a quarterback sneak, I can run a quarterback sneak.’ He got hit, and it was because the last hit he took.”

Prior to leaving the game, Wilkins looked like a glimpse of his old self when he hurdled WSU junior cornerback Marcellus Pippins near the goal line to score the Sun Devils’ first touchdown of the game off a three-yard keeper with 10:25 left in the first quarter. Wilkins' score put ASU up 7-0. 

Wilkins, who was already battling an ankle injury headed into Saturday, left the game after ASU's second series. Wilkins had his helmet off on the sidelines and sat next to ASU’s other injured quarterback, redshirt freshman Brady White, for the majority of the first half.

White was injured in ASU’s game against UCLA after filling in for an injured Wilkins who hurt his foot just prior to halftime in ASU’s game against USC. After sitting out ASU’s following game against UCLA, Wilkins returned as the starting quarterback in ASU’s 40-16 loss to Colorado on Oct. 15.

“It’s no surprise that our situation looks like at the quarterback situation,” Tim White said. “Manny did a great good on his first series like I pointed out earlier and all we can do is try to grind it out and run the ball and put our young quarterback Dillon in the best position he can be in to be comfortable and that’s a big step for a freshman. Especially just being thrown into that spot.”

With Wilkins not returning to the game, Sterling-Cole was 0-of-3 to start and finished the game 7-of-16 for 86 yards. With a young quarterback in the game, ASU lined up in its "Sparky" formation 21 times on the night, which actually gave the Sun Devils life for the latter half of the game.  

Throwing his first collegiate pass, ASU fifth-string quarterback Jack Smith lined up as the "Sparky" formation quarterback (which is technically a wide receiver's alignment) late in the third quarter and hit junior wide receiver Tim White for a 40-yard gain that helped set up a one-yard touchdown score by junior running back Demario Richard to cut WSU's lead to 31-21 as time expired in the third quarter. 

The Cougars responded with WSU wide receiver Gabe Marks catching a 52-yard touchdown pass to put WSU up 37-21 with 13:27 left in the fourth quarter. Marks finished with eight catches for 107 yards and one touchdown. Nine different WSU players had at least two catches on the night. 

However, ASU wasn't going down that easy.

Tim White returned a punt for 70 yards for a touchdown score with 11:18 left in the fourth quarter, closing the gap to 37-29 after ASU converted a two-point conversion try when Richard shoveled the ball off to senior wide receiver Frederick Gammage who threw it to a wide-open senior tight end Kody Kohl in the end zone.  

Tim White's 70-yard punt return was ASU's first punt return touchdown since Jamal Miles took a punt back against Oregon State in October of 2011. 

On WSU's ensuing possession, the Cougars failed to get anything going, specifically due to ASU junior Devil backer Koron Crump jumping on Cougars' quarterback Luke Falk for two sacks on the drive. The Cougars kicked it back to ASU which then drove down the field before senior kicker Zane Gonzalez made a 29-yard field goal with 4:35 remaining in the fourth quarter. On its next possession, WSU ran out the clock to end the game. 

“It was definitely a sense of urgency, trying to get to the quarterback," ASU Bandit safety Marcus Ball said. "It was no surprise that we had sacks today. Everyone knew we were going to bring pressure. It was a sense of urgency trying to get to him.”

Falk was 42-of-53 for 398 and three touchdowns Saturday night. Falk came into the game the active FBS career leader in passing yards per game with 355.8 yards per game. ASU had been giving up 384.4 passing yards through its first seven games of the season. 

In the run game, WSU’s rush defense was No. 1 in the Pac-12, allowing 121.6 yards per game. Behind junior running back Kalen Ballage, ASU had 113 rushing yards on the night on 35 carries. 

The Sun Devils were No. 2 in rush defense coming into the game, holding opponents to 121.6 yards per game. WSU was held to minus-61 rushing yards on Saturday. 

However, while WSU failed to get a run game going, it did take advantage of targeting its running backs out of the backfield through the air. All three of WSU's core running backs, junior  Gerard Wicks, junior Jamal Morrow and redshirt freshman James Williams had at least three carries by the end of the game. 

Morrow led the team in carries and his three-yard touchdown catch with 4:32 left in the third quarter extended WSU's scoring streak to 28 points, putting the Cougars up 31-14. Wicks also had a crucial three-yard touchdown run with 11:26 left in the third quarter to open the second half. 

ASU's running backs tried to make the same impact for the Sun Devils, with Ballage striking early in the game with a 52-yard touchdown score with 8:58 left to go in the second quarter to give ASU a 14-3 lead. 

With Ballage’s rushing touchdown, it was the Sun Devils 20th of the season, surpassing its 19 total rushing touchdown total last year. Ballage’s score was his first out of the Sparky package since he scored six out of his eight touchdown runs in ASU’s 68-55 win over Texas Tech. 

However, on the ensuing play, WSU safety Robert Taylor took Gonzalez's kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to cut ASU’s lead to 14-10 with 8:41 left in the second quarter. WSU wide receiver Tavares Martin then caught a nine-yard touchdown catch give the Cougars its first lead of the game, up 17-14 with 57 seconds left in the first half. 

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