Tashon Smallwood did what he was taught to do.
Every time Arizona State's defensive players work on recovering fumbles in a practice setting, they're told to "scoop and score." It's something they work on regularly. Simply falling on the football? Not in the training manual.
So there Smallwood was, the junior defensive tackle and veteran leader, staring at the football sitting on the ground like a gift basket with his name on it. All he had to do was pick it up, carry it into the end zone a dozen yards away, and celebrate the present with his teammates.
Alas, it didn't go as planned.
With the Sun Devils trailing Washington State by a narrow 37-29 early in the fourth quarter -- and really having no business being as close as they were -- junior pass rusher Koron Crump slammed into Cougars quarterback Luke Falk for one of his game-high three sacks, and knocked the ball free from behind.
As the football rolled inside of the Cougars' 20 yard line, Smallwood bent over to grab it. There was nothing but green grass ahead on his pathway to pay dirt. But even though he got two hands on the prize, Smallwood couldn't cash in. The ball slipped from his grasp and was recovered by Washington State running back Gerald Wicks at the Cougars 12 yard line.
Had Smallwood fallen on the ball ASU would have had a great chance to get a touchdown. Or he could have picked it up and carried in into the end zone. Either would have given the Sun Devils their best chance at achieving an improbable win that instead fell just outside their reach.
Just a few minutes earlier, it didn't look as though they'd have any opportunity to grab control. It actually looked like it was about to spiral out of control.
Cougars junior quarterback Luke Falk had just executed a masterful 75 yard, five-play drive that culminated with his 52-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Gabe Marks that put the visitors ahead 37-21 with 13:27 left in the game.
At that point, the Sun Devils had already used a 52-yard touchdown run by junior running back Kalen Ballage out of their direct snap 'Sparky' formation; they'd used fifth-string quarterback Jack Smith as a passer on a trick play 40-yard reception to senior Tim White; they'd seen starting quarterback Manny Wilkins limp off the field in the first quarter only to return and hurdle a defender on a 3-yard touchdown scamper.
With Wilkins later unable to play due to an apparent injury to his throwing arm, and the Sun Devils down to fourth-string true freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole, their 16-point deficit seemed insurmountable. But then White -- playing with an undisclosed injury suffered or aggravated in the first quarter -- took a Cougars' punt 70 yards for a touchdown, his first score of the season on a return.
The Sun Devils then used another trick play on a successful two-point conversion attempt, with senior wide receiver Frederick Gammage throwing to uncovered senior tight end Kody Kohl to close their deficit to 37-29.
“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," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "We were trying to run one more whenever did the little reverse with Tim and they were able to get it executed and I thought (freshman wide receiver) 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.”
It was a sequence that sent a jolt of adrenaline through the stadium and directly into Crump. The first-year Sun Devil pass rush specialist was second in the Pac-12 with five sacks before adding three more against the Cougars. Two of Crump's sacks came on back-to-back plays on the ASU's next defensive series, including the one that stripped Falk of the ball and set up Smallwood for his chance.
Even after the Cougars' recovered, Crump sacked Falk again on the very next play and celebrated the accomplishment with as much vigor as we've seen from an ASU player all season. The Cougars punted from their own end zone and ASU had one more chance enabled by good field position, but stalled out after getting as close as first and goal at the 10. Senior kicker Zane Gonzalez made a field goal to put ASU down 37-32 with 4:36 left, but Washington State got three first downs and run out the clock on the game's final possession.
"Really proud of our team and the hear that they showed," Graham said. "Showed tremendous heart coming back I think we were down 16 or something like that. Really proud of Dillon coming in. Manny had great courage. Never been around a guy with more courage than he had. But, I'm really proud of Dillon. For a guy that is a true freshman who a few weeks ago was with the scout team, he played with a lot of heart and did a lot of good things. To have a true freshman play, I thought he played with a lot of heart."
Along the way, an already reeling ASU team beset by injuries extending far beyond their quarterback situation, lost starting senior linebacker Salamo Fiso to a left knee injury. Last season's team leader in tackles took a spot on the sidelines on a trainer's table, not far from the Sun Devils' injured second and third string quarterbacks, Brady White (whose foot was in a large cast) and Bryce Perkins (whose neck was supported by a large brace), their second-leading tackler from last season Christian Sam (out since the season opener with a high ankle sprain), their top safety Armand Perry (turf toe), and starting left guard Sam Jones (right leg in a walking boot). ASU was also without junior center A.J. McCollum, who wasn't with the team for an unknown reason.
And even so, the Sun Devils still had an opportunity to win the game even though about one-third of their 59 offensive snaps arrived in the hands of guys who don't even play quarterback.
Ballage and junior running back Demario Richard had 12 carries apiece on the night, the vast majority of which came on the so-called 'Sparky' formation. They combined for 119 rushing yards, 52 of which came on a single play. It's pretty hard when defenses know you're either going to run the ball, or try a trick play out of a formation that is already unconventional to start with.
“The offensive staff, yeah we talked about running it 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 integral part of what we were doing," Graham said.
Washington State abandoned any effort to run the ball in the game, with Falk instead completing 42 of 53 passes for 398 yards and three touchdowns. Most of the catches were quick-game throws out of the Air Raid offense, but there were just a few that beat ASU defensive backs, with senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes, junior Chad Adams and sophomore Kareem Orr all falling victim to Falk's precision on touchdown throws, or passes that set up touchdowns.
Following the game, ASU's second loss in a row and seventh at home in nearly five full seasons, Graham didn't make excuses, not really.
“Everybody has [injuries],” Graham said. “Some years are more difficult. I mean, we didn’t have two starting offensive linemen tonight, our free safety obviously couldn’t play, startling 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.
"Is it frustrating? Yeah, it’s frustrating, but it seems they come about every seven years. 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.”
The last time ASU had anywhere near as many serious injuries was 2011, when key defensive starters Brandon Magee and Omar Bolden were among those lost for the year in training camp. It contributed to the firing of then-coach Dennis Erickson.
In at least the last quarter-century, the Sun Devils haven't had to play a fourth-string quarterback due to injuries to the top three options until this season. The last time they had to start three quarterbacks in a season due to injuries was in 2000. That happened to be the final blow that sent then-coach Bryce Snyder out the door at ASU, four years after he led the last truly great Sun Devil football team to a Rose Bowl.
"Obviously this one hurts because there's guys like Salamo (Fiso) and Ami (Latu) and Laiu (Moeakiola) and Kody Kohl, the seniors, (offensive tackle) Evan Goodman, just 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," Graham said.
Sterling-Cole hit his classmate Harry on several impressive completions, with the local freshman product leading ASU with six catches for 76 yards on the night. Overall, ASU threw the ball just 24 times, with Wilkins going 5 of 6 and Sterling-Cole 7 of 16.
With ASU traveling to Oregon this week, the two freshmen could be relied upon even more if Wilkins is unable to play. It's a Sun Devil team that may not be favored in another game this season, and in need of one more win for bowl eligibility. What once seemed like a given when ASU started the season 4-0, no longer appear to be a sure thing even as they sit at 5-3 and on the outside looking in at the Pac-12 South race.
But the Sun Devils showed one thing clearly on Saturday in response to their 16-point deficit. Even with three quarterbacks and a slew of other key players unable to take the field due to injuries, they definitely haven't quit.