EUGENE, Oregon -- Arizona State was in a hole before its Saturday afternoon game even started. It only dug itself deeper with blatant missed tackles and coverage breakdowns throughout the day.
With nine ASU starters not playing for the Sun Devils against Oregon on Saturday, ASU was left struggling to find solid ground with key absences felt on both sides of the ball.
"Those guys didn't practice much this week," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "I had a pretty good idea. I was pretty hopeful to have a few of them back today, but we can't, we got to do what is best for the kids and their well being, but yeah I had a pretty good idea that most of them would be out. It's a head-scratcher for me. I've never had that many (out) at one time."
In a 54-35 loss to the Ducks in front of 53,899 at Autzen Stadium, the Sun Devils dropped their third-straight game and have a 5-4 overall, 2-4 record in the Pac-12. With the victory, Oregon earned its first conference win and improved to 3-5 overall, 1-4 in the Pac-12.
Despite going down 30-14 at halftime, ASU kept it close in the second half, only trailing 40-35 with 6:39 left to go in the fourth quarter after ASU junior running back Kalen Ballage threw a three-yard touchdown pass to ASU senior tight end Kody Kohl.
However, back-to-back Oregon touchdowns -- a 58-yard touchdown run by Oregon sophomore running back Tony Brooks-James with 6:06 left in the fourth quarter and a 10-yard touchdown run by Royce Freeman with 2:36 left in the fourth quarter -- dashed ASU's hopes of climbing its way out of the hole.
"We had a chance," Graham said. "Our guys came roaring back. They don't quit, that's for sure. All the credit to Oregon for being the better team today."
ASU freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole threw two costly interceptions late in the game, and three on the day. His second interception was the most costly, with Oregon defensive back Tyree Robinson picking off Sterling-Cole at the Oregon 1-yard line before returning the interception to ASU's 15-yard line with 3:52 left in the fourth quarter. Freeman scored on the subsequent Oregon possession and on ASU's next possession, Sterling-Cole threw his third pick of the night to Oregon defensive back Brendon Schooler.
"The difference today was too many big plays given up defensively and you can't play like that and expect to win and obviously the turnovers sealed our fate," Graham said.
Sterling-Cole made his first career start after ASU head coach Todd Graham said on Friday ASU sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins was “doubtful” for Oregon. Wilkins did not suit up for the Sun Devils on Saturday.
Wilkins was injured right before the second half of ASU’s game against USC on Oct. 1. Wilkins started ASU’s games against Colorado and Washington State, but was injured again in the first quarter of ASU’s 37-32 loss to Washington State.
On Saturday against Oregon, Sterling-Cole was the fifth true freshman to start at quarterback in ASU history. Current Houston Texans starting quarterback Brock Osweiler was the last ASU freshman to start at quarterback for the Sun Devils, and he did so in 2009.
Sterling-Cole was 21-for-38 passing for 302 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in the game. Sterling-Cole had one rushing touchdown, a one-yard keeper with 11 seconds left in the first quarter, which pulled the Sun Devils within three points. Going into Saturday’s game, Oregon was allowing an average of 290.1 passing yards per game and 248.4 rushing yards per game.
The Ducks also started a freshman at quarterback Saturday, as Justin Herbert was 20-for-24 for 320 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone and 31-for-42 for 489 yards and four touchdowns in the game. Herbert's 10 touchdowns in his past two starts ties former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota's school record set in 2012.
"Obviously their offense was really on today," Graham said. "Did a great job and give them credit for the win today. Then I just wanted to say how proud I am of our guys and we faced a lot of adversity. Not going to make any excuses."
Going into Saturday’s game, ASU was last in the nation in passing defense, giving up an average of 386.1 passing yards per game. The Sun Devils gave up 734 yards of total offense to the Ducks on Saturday. ASU's average going into the game was 486 total yards allowed per game.
"It was very difficult not having key guys on defense and couldn't communicate, had a lot of errors and things like that and a lot of it was stuff that they were doing a good job," Graham said. "We tackled poorly, but we played poor on defense."
Oregon wide receiver Pharaoh Brown led the Ducks with seven catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns on the day. He set single-game career highs in both receptions and receiving yards in a game.
For ASU, in addition to its injuries at quarterback, it was riddled with injuries on both offense and defense.
On defense, ASU linebacker Salamo Fiso did not play after he was injured in the Sun Devils' game against Washington State, while ASU sophomore safety Armand Perry and sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr were not dressed out, and junior linebacker Christian Sam has been out since he was injured in ASU’s game against Northern Arizona.
On offense, sophomore offensive lineman Sam Jones did not play due to an ankle injury, junior center A.J. McCollum was out for the second straight game for what Graham termed "personal reasons" on Monday, junior running back Demario Richard did not play, and junior wide receiver Cameron Smith did not play.
Additionally, on the first play of the game, ASU senior offensive lineman Stephon McCray was injured and redshirt freshman Steve Miller had to come play on an ASU offensive line that was already shuffled with Jones and McCollum out. McCray did not return to the game.
"When Stephon went down that was 10 starters out and I don't think we've ever had anything like that," Graham said. "No excuse, but got to have other guys step up and we made some mistakes, but we were trying to use (Koron) Crump as a linebacker and that was tough and the main thing was communication was very difficult, three days to try to get all that worked up."
Oregon scored early and often from the start of the game, with its first five offensive possessions resulting in two touchdowns and three field goals.
The Ducks scored first off a coverage bust by ASU, with a 72-yard touchdown catch by senior tight end Pharaoh Brown with 12:11 to go in the first quarter. Brown broke multiple tackles from cornerback De'Chavon Hayes and safety J'Marcus Rhodes while racing down the sidelines, most noticeably giving a stiff arm to ASU linebacker Marcus Ball on his way to the end zone.
"We open practice with turnover drills and tackling drills," Ball said. "That's something that showed up tonight. We didn't do a good job tackling and that's going to be something we have to do something better."
ASU responded to Brown's score with a 12-yard touchdown run by Ballage out of the Sun Devils' "Sparky" formation, but Oregon drove right back down the field with a 31-yard touchdown by wide receiver Charles Nelson over the top of junior cornerback Maurice Chandler who was filling in for an injured Orr.
Oregon kicker Aidan Schneider hit three field goals in the first half, one from 36 yards out with 2:53 left in the first quarter, a 37-yard field goal with 12:31 left in the second quarter and a 30-yard field goal with 5:29 left in the second quarter to make the score 23-14 Oregon on top.
After Sterling-Cole threw an interception that was picked off by Kaulana Apelu with 33 seconds left in the second quarter, Oregon scored an easy touchdown by Brown off an easy pitch and catch in the end zone when junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun had a late reaction to a key read, making the score Oregon 30-14 with nine seconds remaining in the half.