The last time Arizona State had to start a third string quarterback, head coach Bruce Snyder was fired at season's end.
ASU started that 2000 season 5-2, but a rash of injuries at the quarterback position and elsewhere contributed to four losses in its final five games and a 6-6 overall record that ended the Snyder era.
In that season, fourth-year starter Ryan Kealy only managed to play in one game before a knee injury ended his career and backup Jeff Krohn had mononucleosis and concussion issues. That led to third-string quarterback Griffin Goodman starting two games and playing in several others and ASU faltering in the second half of its schedule.
Not only were there quarterback issues for Snyder’s Sun Devils, they also lost starting tailback Delvon Flowers and incurred other key injuries throughout that season.
The 2016 Sun Devils are in a better place than Snyder’s team was in 2000, but they have been equally harmed by injuries.
Through the first eight weeks, ASU has been decimated by injuries across the board.
Since the start of this season, the Sun Devils have played without junior linebacker Christian Sam, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the season opener against Northern Arizona and has not been cleared to return — and they have also been thinned out in the secondary with multiple injuries shortening their depth.
Much like the 2000 season, though, the Sun Devils have incurred serious health issues at the quarterback position, which date all the way back to fall camp. An August neck injury has forced redshirt freshman quarterback Bryce Perkins into a brace he's still wearing, and Perkins was joined on the sidelines Saturday evening by redshirt freshman Brady White who suffered a season-ending foot injury in his first career start against UCLA on Oct. 8.
White was playing against the Bruins because sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins was out with a high ankle sprain, against Washington State, Wilkins was limited with yet another ailment. In the first quarter, Wilkins took a blow to the shoulder from a Cougars' defender and never returned to the game.
With their top three options all on the sidelines against WSU, ASU was forced to play true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole, and forced to protect him with a shuffled offensive line missing a pair of starters.
ASU was without two key starters, sophomore left guard Sam Jones who went down on the final play of the Sun Devils' 40-16 loss to Colorado, and junior center A.J. McCollum who did not play due due to undisclosed reasons.
After tonight’s contest, the Sun Devils added senior linebacker Salamo Fiso to the injury list, as Fiso injured his knee in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game and left the field with crutches. Without Fiso and sophomore safety Armand Perry who missed Saturday's game with turf toe, ASU was without two of its keep defensive communicators in the final minutes of a close contest against the Cougars.
The rash of injuries ASU has experienced through the first eight games is something head coach Todd Graham has had to adjust to on the fly, but after the game, Graham said he's proud of how his players have responded to the consistent injuries that have occurred on a weekly basis.
“Everybody has it,” Graham said. “Some years are more difficult. I mean, we didn’t have two starting offensive linemen tonight, our free safety (Armand Perry) obviously couldn’t play, starting linebacker (Fiso), Tim (White) went down there early and he played hobbled. That’s what makes football so challenging and what makes it so great, it’s hard. One of the things, losing Salamo was tough. I’m really proud of how our players responded.”
After Wilkins’ injury, ASU turned to Sterling-Cole, who had his redshirt burned in the Sun Devils’ victory over UCLA after White went down in the fourth quarter.
Three weeks ago, Sterling-Cole was serving as ASU's scout team quarterback. Suddenly, he was thrust into the spotlight and ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey needed to adjust accordingly.
“The offensive staff, yeah we talked about running it (Sparky formation) and trying to get some success out of that it would minimize, there’s only so much we can run and put on a young quarterback and also the offensive linemen so we felt like that was an intricate part of what we were doing," Graham said.
From senior wide receiver Tim White's perspective, going to the “Sparky” formation was an important option for a depleted offense using its fourth-string quarterback.
“Going to ‘Sparky’, that’s just part of out offense,” White said. “We like to run the ball and that’s what we wanted to utilize and really get down there and grind it out. We know our situation and we know we had to rely on the run and I think our offense did a great job we just have to finish.”
With Sterling-Cole only possessing a limited knowledge of ASU's offense, there was a sense of urgency to create explosive plays in some rather creative ways. With ASU heavily relying on its "Sparky" formation, Lindsey added some trickery to the package that included a 40-yard pass from fifth-string freshman quarterback Jack Smith on an end-around play that put the Sun Devils deep into Washington State territory prior to halftime.
“We talked about that as a staff, that with the issues that we were facing we needed to figure out a way to get explosives and I thought that was one more we would of liked to try to hit,” Graham said. “We were trying to run one more when we did the little reverse with Tim and they were able to get it executed and I thought N’Keal (Harry) made some big-time catches in places down the stretches as well so we were just trying to do what we could do to win.”
Defensively, ASU generated explosive plays with its pass rush, which racked up seven sacks against a typically stout WSU offensive line.
After Fiso’s exit in the fourth quarter, ASU’s defense tried to rally around its fallen leader.
“Salamo is definitely one of our leaders,” junior Bandit safety Marcus Ball said. “He leads this team by example he’s a great role model for this team. As a guy who has, now he has 60 minutes left here at Arizona State to play on his home field, so when he went out it was definitely important to us.”
As Graham reflected on the decimated status of his roster, especially at the quarterback position, he talked about just how difficult the situation has been for him and the ASU coaching staff to adjust to and deal with.
“Is it frustrating? Yeah, it’s frustrating, but it seems they come about every seven years,” Graham said. “You have so many guys hurt, you know? It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced the amount of injuries we’ve had at quarterback, but that’s part of it. We’re not the only ones with that, especially this time of year. That has been difficult.”