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ASU Football: Home magic runs out as Washington State holds off Sun Devils, 37-32

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Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end.

Washington State v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There were late-game rallies against Northern Arizona, Texas Tech, and California, and a fourth quarter full of defensive stops against UCLA.

Yes, it seemed as if this Arizona State Sun Devils team could do no wrong when playing inside the cozy confines of Sun Devil Stadium this season. No matter how big a deficit might be, Todd Graham’s team would find a way to pull out a victory.

That changed on Saturday night against the Washington State Cougars.

Needing one stop in the final four and a half minutes to get the ball back and have an opportunity to fully erase a 16-point fourth quarter deficit, Arizona State’s defense faltered one too many times.

There was a 12-yard completion from quarterback Luke Falk to Tavares Martin Jr., and a 16-yard pass to receiver River Cracraft two plays later. Then came another completion, this one going nine yards to Gabe Marks, to put the nail in the Sun Devil (5-3, 2-3 Pac-12) coffin.

“We gave up three slants,” said Graham after the loss. “I called timeout and said, ‘Hey look guys, we’re playing inside leverage. Just don’t give up any slants.’ Then we went and gave up three slants for them to ice the game.”

The fact that Arizona State was even in the game at that point came as a surprise.

After taking an early 7-0 lead on a highlight-filled touchdown run from quarterback Manny Wilkins (complete with the sophomore signal caller’s signature hurdle), Washington State (5-2, 4-0) rolled off 31 of the game’s next 38 points.

A large part of that comeback came in part due to an injury to Wilkins, suffered on his second drive of the night. The quarterback would leave the game and not return, going down with a right arm injury after being sacked on a third down early in the first quarter.

“He’s a warrior, but it wasn’t safe for him to go back in,” Graham said when asked about the injuries to Wilkins and the rest of his team. “That's what makes football so challenging and so great - it's hard.”

Things started to get hard for the home team halfway through the second quarter, when junior Robert Taylor returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to pull the Cougars to within 14-10.

They then struck for one more touchdown before the half ended in addition to a pair of three-yard scores in the third quarter. When the run was all said and done, the visitors from Pullman had rolled off 28 consecutive points.

“That was the difference in the football game,” said Graham when asked about the kickoff return. “There was no way on Earth that that should’ve went for a touchdown. We thought the kicker was going to tackle him but guys just pulled up.”

But just when it seemed as if the Sun Devils were left for dead, freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole and the rest of his offense rallied. Starting to look more comfortable in the pocket, Sterling-Cole and company put together multiple productive drives beginning late in the third quarter.

A one-yard touchdown run from Demario Richard capped an 81-yard drive to make the score 31-21 as the third quarter expired, and while Washington State connected on a 52-yard home run ball early in the final stanza, the Maroon and Gold’s Tim White responded two minutes later with a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown.

That wild run preceded a wild two-point conversion, featuring a pass from wide receiver Fred Gammage to a wide open tight end Kody Kohl. The sequence pulled Arizona State to within one possession of a tie game at 37-29.

The Sun Devils would eventually cut the deficit down to five after a 29-yard field goal from Zane Gonzalez easily split the uprights, giving the potent Cougar offense the ball back with 4:36 to play.

As fate would have it, that would be just enough time for Falk and company to run out the clock on Arizona State’s undefeated record at home.

A trio of “extended” kneel downs were made by Falk, setting the table for what was sure to be a contentious handshake between Graham and Washington State head coach Mike Leach after Leach accused the Sun Devils of “sign stealing” earlier in the week.

Sure enough, Graham had a few select words when the two met at midfield.

“I respectfully decline on grounds that I might be publicly reprimanded and fined,” Leach said when asked to comment on the exchange, a reference to the $10,000 hit to his checkbook he took on Thursday.

Graham did not have much to say on the subject, either.

“I think that's between me and him,” said Graham. “The game is about the players and not about all of that."

Graham and the rest of his team now sets its sights on next week’s trip to Oregon, which will be the Maroon and Gold’s best chance to obtain a sixth win and get bowl eligible for a sixth straight season.

“We’re not going to hang our heads about the loss,” linebacker Marcus Ball says. “We’re going to go back to work and show up next Saturday.”

With losses in three of their last four games and the home magic gone up in smoke, that might be easier said than done.