Instant analysis: Limited ASU falls short against WSU

Arizona State started strong against Washington State, but an injury-ravaged squad allowed 28 straight points in a 37-32 loss Saturday.

Arizona State lost to Washington State 37-32 Saturday night in a one of the more unusual games of the season.

ASU is not the only team in the country dealing with injuries, but injuries are starting to really pile up for head coach Todd Graham

After losing sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins following ASU’s second series, the Sun Devils had to turn to true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole who was unable to make enough plays to for the Sun Devils' offense to come away with the win.

Wilkins looked good early on but his ability to make plays with his legs was still limited do to a pair lower leg injuries. Behind Wilkins and a 52-yard touchdown run by junior Kalen Ballage out of the "Sparky" formation, ASU jumped out to a 14-3 lead.

After losing Wilkins, ASU probably had to use the "Sparky" formation more than most would have liked against the Cougars. We charted ASU's offensive plays and formations, and the Sun Devils used the "Sparky" formation on more than one-third of its plays.

ASU did show some new wrinkles out of the formation Saturday. We saw reverses and a 40-yard pass by true freshman Jack Smith to senior receiver Tim White.

Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey probably never imagined being without his top three quarterbacks but that is the boat ASU was in tonight. The offensive line was also depleted as sophomore left guard Sam Jones and junior center A.J. McCollum sat out tonight.

The Sun Devils played seven different offensive linemen in the game but struggled for most of the night to run the ball. Junior Demario Richard rushed 12 times for 37 yards. Ballage rushed 12 times for 82 yards but if you take away his 52 yard run, Richard and Ballage only averaged 2.9 yards per carry on 23 rushes.

The line pass-blocked well enough but was never able to establish anything consistently to take pressure off of Sterling-Cole. ASU used freshmen Steve Miller and Cohl Cabral at times during the game. Most of Cabral’s snaps came in the Sparky formation.

ASU tight ends and receivers also did not have a great night blocking which further limited Lindsey’s play-calling options. Despite the injuries and lack of execution, ASU was able to put 32 points on the board and could have the won the game.

Wilkins was 5-for-6 passing for 39 yards. He rushed for a touchdown, hurdling a defender on the play. His leadership battling through injuries as much as he has the past two weeks is a testament to his dedication.

Sterling-Cole was a pedestrian 7-for-16 for 86 yards. His decision-making was not great but he did not throw an interception and for the most part protected the ball all night.

ASU only completed one pass to a running back or a tight end in the game, an eight-yard completion to Ballage on its first series. Passes to the running backs and attacking the middle of the field more was something we thought we would see more of this year under Lindsey but after eight games that approach has never been consistently used by the Sun Devils.

One of the few bright spot for the Sun Devils was their talented freshman receiver N'Keal Harry. He played well with six receptions for 76 yards including a couple of tough catches at big times.  

Where the offense goes from here is mostly dependent on which quarterback it is playing with. We do not know Wilkins' status for next week. In the last four games since Wilkins was injured against USC, we have seen ASU put up 303 yards vs. USC, 275 vs. UCLA, 199 vs. Colorado and 280 vs. WSU. No matter who is at quarterback ASU will have to get better on offense to finish with a winning record.

ASU’s defense also missing a couple of starters played an up and down game. Junior field safety Armand Perry did not dress and was replaced mainly by junior Chad Adams. Washington State regularly schemed to attack Adams. Junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes was subbed in for Adams for a few plays but made no significant impact and the coaches went back to Adams.

Senior De'Chavon Hayes started at cornerback opposite sophomore Kareem Orr. On nickel downs we saw Hayes slide inside and junior Maurice Chandler came in to play field safety. Chandler and Hayes both rotated during the game. The trio played well at times, but Hayes still continues to lose his man when he looks back for the ball on deep throws.

Junior Marcus Ball seems to have found a home at Bandit safety. It was his third solid game in a row since he became the starter. He led ASU with nine tackles and had a sack in the game.

Junior Koron Crump had another strong game rushing the passer. He had three sacks on the night and forced fumble. On that fumble junior defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood had a chance to recover the ball deep in WSU territory. Instead of falling on the ball Smallwood tried to scoop the ball up so he could run in for a score but was unsuccessful and the Cougars recovered and punted.

It is pretty easy to criticize Smallwood for his decision-making there but it is important to remember when you are down to your fourth quarterback, it often times causes players to do too much at times.

Overall the defensive front did a good job of getting pressure on the quarterback. ASU had seven sacks on 53 passing attempts. Early on ASU didn't blitz much and had its linebackers sitting back in zones to defend crossing patterns. The approach worked and WSU adjusted and then ASU blitzed more as the game went on.

Junior D.J. Calhoun started out strong and finished with a strong game on the stat sheet with seven tackles, three tackles-for-loss and two sacks. However, he still struggles with coverage and making tackles in space. It looks like ASU could be without Sam linebacker Salamo Fiso who was on crutches at the end with game. Calhoun is better probably better suited at the SAM and more than likely starts at that position in 2017.

The injuries on the defense are starting to mount. Perry’s status moving forward is unclear. Junior Christian Sam, arguably the team’s best overall defender, might be lost for the season at this point. If Fiso is also out the inside linebackers are Calhoun and either senior Carlos Mendoza or junior Alani Latu.

We saw ASU use freshman Malik Lawal in the game at linebacker and as an edge rusher. He is not someone you would figure ASU would use as an insider backer against the run if Fiso is out.

ASU's defense played relatively well but not well enough to win. It did tackle better in space than it had lately and did generate pressure but failed to limit big plays or force a turnover.

WSU running backs only rushed seven times for 23 yards and the rushing stats in the game are somewhat misleading. WSU never tried to establish the run so it's not as much that ASU made them one-dimensional as the Cougars chose to be one-dimensional.

ASU special teams had an average night. It got a big play from senior Tim White on a his 70-yard punt return for a touchdown but the 100-yard kickoff return by Washington State’s Robert Taylor is something that a team limited on offense cannot afford to surrender and win.

It is possible that senior Zane Gonzalez slightly mishit his kickoff or ASU was setting up a shorter kickoff to pin the Cougars deep. We saw ASU try this earlier in year. It does seem to be a risk not worth taking for ASU to try to pin teams deep when they have a kicker who is almost an automatic touchback at home. Especially when you factor ASU’s issues with tackling in the open field.

Matt Haack did not have one of his better games with a 41.8 average per punt but the Cougars had negative-five yards on one punt return.

Looking ahead ASU travels to play a struggling Oregon team that has lost five straight and is in last place in the Pac-12 North. The Ducks' defense could be the cure for the Sun Devils’ offensive woes. It is arguably the worst defense ASU will have played since Cal or maybe even UTSA.

The Sun Devils have not won in Eugene since 2002. A win next week would be big for a program which faces two tough games with Utah and Washington afterward. A two-game losing streak could be five by the time ASU plays Arizona.

An ASU win could give the Sun Devils some confidence for when it plays Utah. ASU is 5-3 and could finish anywhere from 5-7 to possibly 8-4 if it can right the ship. It should be an interesting final four games to say the least.

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