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ASU Football: Despite chances, ASU can’t steal win from Cougars

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Missed opportunities on offense and one disastrous drive on defense doomed ASU’s bid for a remarkable win in a game it should’ve never been in in the first place.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It shouldn’t have been, but it was there for the taking.

The Arizona State Sun Devils were down to their fourth-string quarterback. They had given up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Luke Falk had turned in a repeat performance of his 2015 domination of ASU, throwing for three touchdowns to three different receivers.

And yet, as Zane Gonzalez sent a kickoff through the back of the Washington State end zone with 4:36 remaining in the fourth, Arizona State trailed by only five points and was in position to give its offense a chance to escape Saturday night with an improbable victory.

Falk was hampered after injuring his arm on the previous series, and an ASU pass rush that had already collected seven sacks on the night looked poised for another. Tim White’s 70-yard punt return had flipped momentum on its head, and Gonzalez’s 29-yard field goal moved the Sun Devils within five points as the defense trekked out for the game’s climatic drive.

It was a stop ASU head coach Todd Graham’s defense expects to make. On Saturday night, it was one it needed to make.

And then Tavares Martin Jr. picked up 12 yards on a first down throw, and two plays later Falk found River Cracraft for 16 yards and another first down.

Two plays later, Falk’s final pass of the night—his 42nd completion on his 53rd attempt—was corralled by Gabe Marks for a nine yard gain and another fresh set of downs, and the Cougars ran out the clock to send the Sun Devils to their third loss in four games.

“We were playing good defense. I thought ‘We already kicked the field goal’ and because it was fourth and really long, I probably should’ve went for it but I felt like we had enough time to hold them,” coach Graham said. “But then we gave up three slants and I called timeout and I said, ‘Hey look guys, we’re playing inside leverage, just don’t give up any slants,’ and we went and gave up three slants there for them to ice the game.”

Washington State’s final drive ended ASU’s shot at what would’ve been its most-impressive comeback in a season that’s been marked with notable second-half turnarounds. Graham’s defense couldn’t get off the field at the end to give its offense another shot, but without the performance of its pass rush all night ASU wouldn’t have ever found itself with a chance to climb back in the game.

After Kareem Orr was beat deep by Gabe Marks down the sideline for a 52-yard catch-and-run touchdown that put Wazzu up 37-21 early in the fourth quarter, ASU’s offense went three-and-out and quickly punted back to the Cougars. Looking to put up another score and effectively end the competition, Washington State remained pass-happy. However, ASU’s pass rush was able to force the ball out of his hands with haste, and forced consecutive incompletions setting up Tim White’s punt return touchdown.

Giving the ball back to the Cougars and trailing by eight, ASU’s pass rush looked as if it was ready to take the deficit into its own hands. Koron CrumpASU’s most-consistent pass rusher in 2016—beat the Washington State right tackle with a speed rush around the edge and collided with Falk at the Cougar 14-yard line, chopping the ball out in the process. But Tashon Smallwood—with the endzone and a Sun Devil lead in his sights—couldn’t corral the ball while trying to scoop and score and the Cougars retained possession. Crump again got in the backfield on the ensuing play for another sack, but the chance for a defensive score right after the special teams touchdown was squandered.

“We had the ball on the ground and we tried to scoop and score it instead of getting on the ball. That could’ve been the difference in the game. We just didn’t execute to score,” Graham said.

The missed opportunity was par for the course in Arizona State’s fourth quarter. After Crump’s second sack of the period forced a Wazzu punt, ASU sent out Dillon Sterling-Cole to try and mount a game-tying drive. The true freshman quarterback had struggled all night, but began to show signs of life over the final stretch of the game. He completed a clutch 13-yard throw at midfield to Jalen Harvey that was followed by a fourth-down conversion, and his best throw of the night came two plays later as he found N’Keal Harry between two defenders for a 22-yard gain down to the Washington State 10-yard line.

Rather than give Sterling-Cole the keys to getting those final ten yards, ASU went to the Sparky formation for first and second down. Those plays resulted in a gain of two and a loss of three for Kalen Ballage, and Sterling-Cole’s third-down pass was knocked down by the Cougars. Graham could’ve opted to go for it on fourth, but chose to take the three points and pass the baton to his defense, needing just that one final stop with 4:36 left on the clock.

The stop never came.

‘Obviously, I did not want to lose that game,” Graham said before reflecting on what it took for his team to get back in the game in the first place. “The heart. That’s what I’m proud of. I think our fans know that our guys are going to give them everything they’ve got. I’m just disappointed and I wish I could’ve done more to help us win because I thought we were going to win that game.”

On a night in which his special teams and defense kept him in a game that he looked destined to lose after Manny Wilkins’ departure, Graham was given his opportunity to pull one out of hat.

It shouldn’t have been, but it was there for the taking.

It didn’t matter.