Ten Takeaways: Washington State

Our final review of Arizona State's loss to Washington State goes in depth on the analysis side of the contest and where the Sun Devils go from here.

1. ASU's injury woes went from significant to catastrophic, and perhaps even unprecedented, during ASU's 37-32 loss to Washington State on Saturday. I asked a number of individuals who have either worked in the ASU athletic department for decades, or been season ticket holders dating back 40-plus years, if they could remember a season in which the Sun Devils had to extensively play a fourth-string scholarship quarterback due to injuries. None could remember such an occurrence. You have to go back to 2000 to find a season that ASU started three quarterbacks due to injuries and/or illness, with Ryan Kealy suffering an ACL tear and Jeff Krohn dealing with mononucleosis and concussion issues. Then-coach Bruce Snyder was fired after ASU finished 6-6 that year. But the Sun Devils aren't just suffering at the quarterback position, where sophomore starter Manny Wilkins entered the game with foot and ankle injuries and was knocked out in the first quarter due to an arm/shoulder issue, joining Brady White (foot) and Bryce Perkins (neck) on the sidelines. Other starters who weren't available: left guard Sam Jones, center A.J. McCollum, WILL linebacker Christian Sam, field safety Armand Perry. ASU also didn't have the services of starter-caliber wide receiver Cameron Smith and second-string safety James Johnson. Then, after Wilkins was knocked out, senior starting SAM backer and the team's top returning tackler Salamo Fiso went down with a left knee injury. Earlier in the game, senior leading receiver Tim White missed several series due to getting banged up, and starting sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr has played the last two weeks while nursing a right knee sprain. 

2. Any notion that Wilkins didn't continue to play in Saturday's game due to a lack of toughness is absurd. This is a guy who tried to practice three days after suffering a high ankle sprain -- mild though it may have been for such an injury - by limping through the first portion of session before thinking better of it. He started at Colorado two weeks after suffering an injury that takes most people 4-to-6 weeks to recover from, and wasn't even able to run at anywhere near full speed, and was limping every time he moved outside the pocket. He wasn't even able to take part in the full warm up prior to the game in which he started. That's something you will almost never see from any football player at this level. So if Wilkins wasn't able to play after getting hurt against the Cougars, he physically was not able to play. Period. 

3. With another week to prepare for its quarterback injuries, Arizona State had a better offense game plan for Washington State than it did at Colorado. Even though the Sun Devils still struggled to move the football, their approach helped make the game more competitive throughout. They slowed things down more, running just 59 plays, 21 of which came out of the so-called 'Sparky' formation. But they didn't just run the ball out of the look in this game. Fifth-string quarterback Jack Smith threw a 40 yard pass to senior Tim White out of the formation, and ASU tried to use Smith to throw another time but couldn't do so. They also ran a trick play on a 2-point conversion attempt that worked well. When freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole had to replace Wilkins, ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey called a number of designed roll outs in an effort to give his young quarterback more time to see the field and identify where to throw the football, with multiple receivers out in front in his line of sight. That's not offense we've seen a lot from this team all season. 

4. Sterling-Cole showed glimpses of what has made him such a promising quarterback prospect. At the same time, he also showed how early he is in his development. Lindsey worked hard to craft a game plan to put his freshman quarterback in a good situation with the type of mixed results that should be expected. There were two absolutely beautiful, NFL style throws from the pocket completed between Sterling-Cole and fellow true freshman N'Keal Harry, one for 20 yards in the second quarter and another for 17 yards in the third quarter. He has the ability to fit the ball into tight windows and an arm that allows him to make all the throws on the field. But Sterling-Cole also was unaware of the play clock on several situations, one of which led to his coaches needing to take a timeout. He fumbled a ball on a snap, which ASU was forced to recover. He failed to throw the ball away instead of taking losses on several occasions. He missed open receivers at times, and threw inaccurately on other reps. He's got a lot of room to grow and improve. That's both the negative (for this year) and the positive (for his long term). Overall, Sterling-Cole completed 7 of 16 passes for 86 yards. One of the best signs of the night? No interceptions or anything that was really close. 

5. Harry responded with a very good game after going through a more challenging stretch the last few weeks against USC, UCLA and Colorado, all of which have very impressive defensive backs. We predicted in our game preview that Harry would be more of a factor against the Cougars and he responded with six catches for 86 yards. For the season, Harry now is second on the team with 32 catches for 342 yards and three touchdowns. As a frame of reference, Harry is now tied for the most catches by a true freshman in ASU history with John Jefferson and Derek Hagan, who had 32 catches for 405 yards as a true freshman in 2002. The only two players who have caught more passes in their true freshman season? Hybrid running back/wide receiver D.J. Foster had 37 catches for 533 yards and tight end Zach Miller had a remarkable 56 catches for 552 yards. With at least four games left in the season (and probably five), Harry has a chance to threaten Miller's record and should finish no worse than second all-time and first among receivers. 

6. Going into this season, who would have ever expected ASU's top three tacklers to be junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun, junior linebacker/safety Marcus Ball and sophomore field safety Armand Perry? Perhaps Perry made sense but the Sun Devils returned to their 2016 team their top two tacklers from last season and two of the top tacklers in the Pac-12, Fiso and Sam. The fact that Fiso isn't in the Top-5 and Sam is nowhere to be found because he's only played in one game is a good sign of just how wacky this season has been for ASU from an injury standpoint. Calhoun only played on nickel downs earlier in his career and Ball has never even been a starter on any personnel grouping defensively, and even lost his job at Spur earlier this season. 

7. With Perry out due to turf toe and Sam and Fiso likely to be out or limited in coming weeks, it's looking as though Calhoun and Ball will battle for the team lead in tackles. Are you aware that Ball has led ASU in the category in three straight games (UCLA, Colorado, Washington State) since becoming ASU's starter at Bandit, with 29 stops including an unreal 28 solo tackles? He was Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for his 10-tackle effort against the Bruins. Even though Ball physically has a better athletic package to play the Spur position, he's not consistently quick reactive enough when closer to the line of scrimmage to handle coverage assignments. But when situated deeper at the Bandit position, that's been less of an issue and his run stopping and ability to make plays coming forward has really shined. He's not a great coverage safety, so that's a limiting factor, but Ball has looked like one of the team's better defensive players of late. It's something that's been expected of him since he arrived on campus. 

8. Sure, ASU stopped the run against the Cougars. It was a Top-5 overall performance in school history in that regard, with Washington State generating a net minus-52 rushing yards. That includes the seven sacks taken by junior quarterback Luke Falk. But Falk was fine with the Cougars not running the ball hardly at all in the game. He said after it was over that the way ASU defended the Cougars it was a disadvantage to run the ball because of how the numbers were in the box. So instead he threw it 53 times and completed 42 for a 398 yards and 79.2 percent completion rate -- better than the 71.4 percent he was on the season entering the game. That's usually going to led to a win when it includes 50-plus passes, and especially when it includes no interceptions and when the opponent is so injury-plagued. ASU actually managed just three passes defended in the game. ASU coach Todd Graham has said throughout his career that stopping the run is a key barometer of success, but the Sun Devils are first in the Pac-12 in run defense and yet last by far in passing defense and nothing but average in most other categories. They're also giving up more yards per play than any of their peers in the league. 

9. Now that the Sun Devils are clearly unable to compete for the Pac-12 South title and very banged up across the roster, it's time to play their younger players much more. Yes, bowl eligibility is extremely important, but there's no real way to simulate game experience. Sterling-Cole, offensive linemen Zach RobertsonSteve Miller and/or Cohl Cabral, tight end JayJay Wilson, defensive backs Kyle Williams and Robbie Robinson, linebacker Malik Lawal and defensive linemen Jalen Bates could all end up playing huge starting roles for the Sun Devils in the next year or two and ASU coaches should very seriously consider ways to get them into the lineup as much as possible. Robertson (as a guard), Miller, Cabral, Wilson and Robinson have all already shown that they're ready to play with decent capability now, including against Washington State. 

10. After losing to Washington State, and considering they're an underdog at woeful Oregon, the Sun Devils will likely be an underdog in each of their remaining games. The only strong possibility for them to be a favorite is against Arizona in the Territorial Cup, but they'll probably need to win at least one game between now and then for that to happen. A 4-0 start that appeared to hint at an ASU team set to overachieve its expectation has turned into a very tenuous situation just a month later, and there's potential for it to further devolve due to the calamitous injury situation.  

11. (Bonus) ASU junior pass rush specialist Koron Crump had three sacks in the game including back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter when his teammates needed him most. The first of those sacks included a strip of Falk and left the ball on the turf but junior defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood wasn't able to scoop it up despite having a great opportunity to do so, and the Cougars recovered. Crump was like a man possessed in the next play, in which he sacked Falk again. He now is leading the Pac-12 with eight sacks and third overall nationally. He's been moved around to give him opportunities both off the edge, and through the interior gaps and it's working very well. He's got a chance to be one of the team's most valuable weapons next year, particularly if he's able to continue to improve against the run. 


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