An injury bug that has depleted Arizona State at crucial positions this season proved it hasn't lost its touch Saturday, as the bug came back to bite the Sun Devils in a 37-32 loss against Washington State.
Prior to kickoff, sophomore left guard Sam Jones and sophomore safety Armand Perry were ruled out with injuries, while junior center A.J. McCollum did not appear on the sidelines for what head coach Todd Graham termed a personal matter.
In the first quarter of Saturday's game, the Sun Devils lost sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins to an undisclosed upper body injury that left the offense without its leader, and in the fourth quarter, senior linebacker Salamo Fiso went down with a knee injury that left the defense short-handed.
“Not really,” Graham said when asked for an update on Wilkins during his Monday press conference. “I mean obviously got banged up during the game and it will be a day-to-day, week-to-week deal.
On Monday, Graham said there were no updates on Jones' progress, and didn't provide specific updates on either his or Fiso's injuries.
With Wilkins taken out of the game after ASU’s second possession, freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole into earned the first extensive game action of his college career.
Sterling-Cole, who has practiced much of the season with ASU's scout team, still does not have an extensive knowledge of first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s playbook, which put the Sun Devils in a bind on Saturday.
Graham pointed out the limitations ASU faced, but also praised the young quarterback for his effort in the situation he was thrust into after Wilkins’ injury.
“Obviously all the reps and stuff that you had in spring ball and fall camp and all of that, you don’t have that foundation,” Graham said of Sterling-Cole. “I thought he did a solid job. He got better as the game went on and was really proud of the effort he gave. And I was really, really proud of Demario (Richard) and the guys around him on the offense and how they stepped up.”
With Wilkins sidelined, Lindsey had to improvise ASU's offensive game plan, and Sterling-Cole attempted just 16 passes on the night, finishing with 86 passing yards.
“I thought coach Lindsey did a good job with the specials, using our “Sparky” and “Moose” formation with Kalen and Demario and then keeping things simple for Dillon,” Graham said. “And Dillon made some fantastic throws, he really did, and I think that helped him once he got a few completions under his belt he got better.”
Ball, Moeakiola bring stability to banged up secondary
For the past three games though, ASU has started Ball at Bandit safety, and flipped Moeakiola back to the Spur linebacker position he started at for the past two season.
ASU first switched Moeakiola to Spur in its contest against Texas-San Antonio, and that move helped ignite a number of fourth quarter defensive stands.
As the Sun Devils looked for answers at Bandit safety after Moeakiola’s switch back to Spur, ASU's coaches elected to insert Ball into the starting lineup against UCLA and the decision made an instant impact.
Since Ball made the switch to Bandit, he has recorded 28 unassisted tackles (29 total) in three games, which leads ASU in that span.
On Saturday, Ball was also incorporated into blitz packages, which led to extensive pressure on Washington State quarterback Luke Falk throughout the night.
Graham praised Ball and Moeakiola’s production, but he quickly noted ASU is still struggling with coverage busts at other positions in the defensive backfield.
“I think Marcus has played outstanding,” Graham said. ”He’s really done well. Laiu played outstanding. The key for us is that’s created stability. Obviously Armand (Perry) being out hurts, and 90-percent of the time we play pretty well at corner then we’ll give up a big play and that was the difference.”
On the 53 pass attempts by Falk, only three were broken up by ASU defenders. While Moeakiola and Ball have been consistent playmakers of late for the Sun Devils, Graham stressed the importance of having the rest of ASU's defenders maintain proper technique throughout the course of a game.
“I think Marcus has been really good and Laiu’s obviously kind of the rudder of that group there,” Graham said. “For the most part, I think those guys have played consistently. We’ve played well at corner at times, then we give up plays where we don’t play good technique.”
News and notes
- In the fourth quarter, with ASU trailing 37-32, junior Devil backer Koron Crump forced a strip sack on Falk and junior Tashon Smallwood had a chance to jump on the ball and give ASU possession deep in WSU territory. Graham said on Monday that ASU teaches a scoop-and-score technique, but securing possession is ASU's top priority. “Number one thing, we want possession of the football,” Graham said. “Obviously, those things happen really fast. That was a key play, we needed to get possession, so you’ve got to make that play. Most important thing is when the ball is on the ground, we get possession of it. Obviously if we’re cleared to scoop and score it’s what we want to do, but number one thing is possession of the ball.”
- One of the plays that helped ASU narrow its deficit was a punt return touchdown from senior wide receiver Tim White. Graham continued his season-long praise of White Monday, lauding his courage after he exited the game early on with an injury but later returned and delivered ASU with a special teams touchdown.
- However, ASU allowed a special teams bust on its kickoff coverage that started a 28-0 WSU run. Graham said that the kickoff by senior Zane Gonzalez should have pinned the Cougars inside the 15-yard line, but alignment busts led to a 100-yard score.