With Arizona State’s top three quarterbacks out with various injuries, the ASU offense pulled from a variety of places to put up 32 points in its 37-32 loss to Washington State.
Redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins did end up starting the game, and on the first drive, he seemed much closer to 100 percent than he was against Colorado. Wilkins orchestrated a beautiful, 11-play drive that went for 59 yards and a touchdown. He was 4-of-4 for 34 yards, and capped it off with a touchdown run featuring another signature hurdle.
But a hit on the second drive knocked him out of the game, as head coach Todd Graham said after the game that it “wasn’t safe” for Wilkins to return.
For the second time this season, freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole was called upon to lead the Sun Devil offense. What ensued was less than stellar. ASU went three-and-out on three consecutive drives as Sterling-Cole failed to complete his first collegiate pass until the second quarter. On the night, Sterling-Cole went 7-of-16 for 86 yards.
“Dillon did what he could do,” ASU redshirt-senior receiver Tim White said. “He played with heart and all we had to do as an offense is keep him motivated and confident because you never know what can happen on the last series of the game.”
Sterling-Cole’s slow start combined with injuries to its offensive line caused ASU to run its Sparky package more frequently. The Sun Devils quickly reaped the benefits when junior running back Kalen Ballage took a counter-run 52 yards for a touchdown, extending ASU’s lead early in the second quarter.
“Obviously, there’s only so much we can run and put on a young quarterback, and also two new offensive linemen,” Graham said. “We felt like that was an intrical part of what we were doing.”
Ballage and junior running back Demario Richard took turns taking snaps in the Sparky formation, and both ran for touchdowns from it. The two combined for 119 yards on 24 carries (4.96 yards per carry).
ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey displayed plenty of creativity as well, per usual. Lindsey called at least five rollouts to move the pocket for Sterling-Cole, but the young quarterback went 0-of-5 from those plays. That led to more plays out of the Sparky and more running in general.
Lindsey also tapped into some trickeration on a reverse to ASU freshman Jack Smith, who then tossed the ball to White for 40 yards, ASU’s longest throw of the night. Smith also became the fourth ASU player to complete a pass this season.
“We talked about (trick plays) as a staff that with the issues that we were facing,” Graham said. “We needed to figure out a way to get explosives.”
With his team down 16 points with 11:15 to go, White found another way to make an impact with an impressive 70-yard punt return that charged ASU’s comeback attempt.
“We had to put points on the board for our quarterbacks and our offense,” White said. “That is what we accomplished, but without a victory it doesn’t mean anything.”
Lindsey’s creativity was put on display once again when the Sun Devils needed two points to make it a one-possession game. Sterling-Cole lined up to take the snap and walked over to the right as if he were making adjustments. Richard received the direct snap, handed it to redshirt-senior receiver Fred Gammage who then tossed it to a wide open redshirt senior tight end Kody Kohl in the back of the end zone.
Of ASU’s 32 points, just 10 came from a conventional play or formation (i.e. a made field goal or the quarterback taking the snap).
Sterling-Cole flashed a strong arm and a little more confidence as the game progressed. He hit freshman receiver N’Keal Harry three times for chunk gains, including a 22-yard bullet that Harry beat two Washington State defenders to in the air.
That said, ASU came in thinking Wilkins would run Lindsey’s offense as he had before going down against USC. Nine minutes and 35 seconds into the game, that was no longer the case. The Sun Devils improvised about as well as one could ask and found plenty of points where they could, not to mention a missed scoop-and-score opportunity following junior Devilbacker Koron Crump’s strip sack on redshirt junior Luke Falk inside Washington State’s 10 yard line.
Nonetheless, Wilkins’ status will be up in the air once again this week. Graham did not comment on the status of any his team’s injured players after the game, but he did mention how difficult it is dealing with so many injuries to his quarterbacks.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced the amount of injuries we’ve had at quarterback, but that’s part of it,” Graham said. “We’re not the only ones that deal with that, especially this time of the year, but that has been difficult.”
Graham, Lindsey and the Sun Devils have a week to cook up a new idea of what this offense can do if Wilkins can’t go, but their performance against Washington State did shed light on their ability to find points in different places.