SEATTLE, Washington -- After losing to Washington to 44-18, Arizona State has now lost five games in a row for the first time under head coach Todd Graham. It will need to beat rival Arizona next week in Tucson to become bowl eligible, not something many expected after ASU started the season 4-0.
Two years ago, the Sun Devils and Wildcats faced off for the Pac-12 South title, but now the game will feature two teams who have combined to lose 13 games in a row.
There are multiple reasons as to why the Sun Devils have fallen to such depths. The main reason is ASU's defense. ASU has given up at least 40 points in all five losses during this streak. At this point, the Sun Devils simply cannot cover whether they bring pressure or not.
ASU basically played off coverage all night against the Huskies and rarely brought pressure against Washington. The approach was no more successful than the attacking style that Graham has been known for and that fans have been lamenting about for over a year now. The result in the end was 44 points, 26 first downs, and 539 yards of total offense for Washington and zero sacks by the ASU defense.
ASU's defense made some plays early, forcing two first quarter interceptions and what should have been a pick-six by junior linebacker Koron Crump that would have given ASU an early lead. Crump’s touchdown was nullified by a block in the back penalty inside the the 5-yard line by junior Maurice Chandler. Chandler did hit Washington quarterback Jake Browning in the back but the block was not very violent and did not impact the outcome of the play. The official could have kept the flag in his pocket, but Chandler also should have known better than to even attempt a meaningless block.
Crump was one of the few bright spots for the ASU in the game. We saw him play at SAM linebacker as well as at Devil backer. Right now, he is a much better player when used as a pass rusher, but assuming 2016 signee Doug Subtyl enrolls, fulfills his potential and takes the Devil backer spot, inside linebacker might be Crump’s primary position in ASU's base defense in 2017.
Injuries obviously are a huge issue for ASU right now. Junior safety Marcus Ball was expected to start but according to Graham had a medical issue that prevented him from dressing. Junior safety Chad Adams replaced Ball but played field safety. Sophomore Armand Perry slid over to Bandit, a position we have thought he is ideally suited for, and played well. He was credited with 12 tackles including a tackle for loss.
Perry figures to play either Bandit or Spur in 2017 assuming ASU has a better option at field safety. Adams is not the long term answer. It is possible freshman Chase Lucas, who is redshirting, could play there next year. Other than Lucas or freshman Kyle Williams, who wants to play receiver, it does not seem like ASU has a player in the program at this time who is the answer at field safety.
Senior De'Chavon Hayes started at corner opposite sophomore Kareem Orr. He alternated with Chandler throughout the game, but neither played well. Freshman Robbie Robinson has seemingly wasted what could have been his redshirt year. He played nickel back early in the season but he has not received meaningful snaps in weeks. It is a fair question to ask why Robinson is not playing at least part-time over seniors Hayes and Bryson Echols. There has not been much of a youth movement on defense, which makes one question how much talent is in the program.
Making matters worse for the Sun Devils, they lost freshman defensive lineman Jalen Bates in pregame warmups to injury. Bates in one of the young defensive players who has been receiving more snaps of late. His status moving forward is unknown right now.
ASU's defense has some solid pieces for 2017, but unless there is a major upgrade to the pass defense, it is unlikely that the unit returns to the level of play we saw from 2012 through 2014. ASU needs to either develop its current players or find players who can rush the passer and can cover in the back end.
The Sun Devils' offense once again struggled to find any consistent production. In the first quarter, when the defense was making plays, it had seven of its 13 plays either go for a loss or no gain. For the game, it had 24 of 60 plays go for a loss or no gain. Further hurting the Sun Devils, they had only one explosive play on offense before the game got out of hand. ASU's offense ultimately finished the game with five explosive plays
Sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins started out relatively strong this season but that was mainly in home games against poor defensive teams. Since his October 1 ankle injury, Wilkins has tended to have happy feet and his desire to run in the pocket has only grown. Saturday versus Washington, on multiple occasions Wilkins stayed locked in to his primary target too long and was either late to hit an open back or tight end or just simply took a sack when he did not have to take one.
Despite Wilkins' lackluster performance, ASU did not play freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole in the game. The Sun Devils signed four highly rated quarterbacks over their last three classes, but at this point, it is a legitimate question if any of them are the long-term answer at the position. This season was supposed to be about figuring out who is the next ASU starting quarterback. The pursuit of former Alabama quarterback Blake Barnett shows that ASU's coaches still see the need to add talent to the position.
A big factor in the struggles on the offense was the team's ineffectiveness running the ball and consistently failing to get into third and manageable situations. Against Washington, ASU only converted 1-of-14 third down conversions. Its average distance on third down was 10.6 yards. It only had three third downs where it had four yards or less to make. Very few offenses are going to produce on the road when repeatedly put in third long situations.
The offensive line was without starting guards Sam Jones and Stephon McCray. Further complicating matters, it lost right tackle redshirt freshman right tackle Zach Robertson during the game. As a result, ASU running backs combined to rush 14 times for 34 yards. The running game coming into the season was supposed to be ASU’s strength, but because of a combination of injuries and ineffective play at quarterback and upfront, teams are loading up to stop the run.
ASU's offensive line actually had a solid start to the season, only to regress against better competition. The unit has some good young talent but instead of getting better as the season has gone on, it has only worsened. Midway through the season, the offensive line was on track to show improvement in its sacks allowed total over the last few seasons, but over the last month or so the play of the line has probably been as bad as we have seen under Graham.
If there is one thing to feel good about with ASU’s offense, it is the talent at the skill positions. Freshman N'Keal Harry became the Sun Devils' freshman single-season receiving yardage record holder in the game. Harry had six receptions for 114 yards, and he's a legitimate No. 1 receiver in the Pac-12 and has NFL potential.
Sophomore tight end Jay Jay Wilson had two impressive touchdown receptions on broken plays. Wilson can be an impact player in the running and passing game.
Freshman Kyle Williams showed his potential on pair of receptions. ASU has good talent redshirting at slot receiver right now and Williams could be a starter on defense in the future, but he also has a high ceiling on offense.
ASU has talent on offense to produce like we have seen in the past from Graham’s ASU teams but until it gets a quarterback who consistently makes good decisions, it will struggle against good defenses.
Arizona is playing for pride next week in the Territorial Cup. ASU is playing to become bowl-eligible. The Wildcats are not very good and the Sun Devils will probably be favored to win. It's not as big of game as the one two years ago but for ASU, making a bowl game and getting up to 15 extra practices is huge for a young program still trying to find answers all over the field.
It is also an important game for the immediate future of the two head coaches. While both will presumably will back for 2017, a loss for ASU will make six straight. Losses to ranked teams such as Washington, Utah, Colorado, Washington State and USC are something fans can begrudgingly accept but a loss to an Arizona team whose only other wins came against Hawaii and Grambling State will put Graham squarely on the hot seat heading into next year.