PASADENA, Calif. — Over the past few seasons, the Arizona State Sun Devils have been characterized as a team that gives up backbreaking defensive plays. That’s not unusual for a program that’s routinely near the bottom of the country in total defense.
But this season, things were beginning to turn around.
In wins over then-No. 4 Washington and Utah, ASU began to show signs of improvement, keeping plays in front of it and making its opponents earn yards and points, eventually stalling against the bend-but-don’t-break Devils.
Saturday at the Rose Bowl, the UCLA Bruins turned that on its head. In a 44-37 loss at the hands of the homestanding Bruins, ASU allowed 13 plays of 15 or more yards, giving UCLA room to operate all night long.
Unsurprisingly, junior quarterback Josh Rosen was at the center of most of those gains. In his third go at ASU, Rosen finally earned a win over the Sun Devils, completing 25 of 45 passes for 381 yards and a score, plus another touchdown on the ground.
In the process, he completed nine “chunk” plays of 15 yards or more to four different receivers, with his touchdown being a 22-yard strike to redshirt junior receiver Jordan Lasley.
But head coach Todd Graham wasn’t concerned about keeping Rosen silent.
“I knew coming in that he was going to have his yards,” Graham said. “You’re just not going to stop him.”
What Graham was concerned with was making sure Rosen was the only way the Bruins were going to beat him. That was not the case.
“We gave up too much against the run,” Graham said. “We needed to make them one-dimensional and we didn’t. They had some big runs on us.”
Coming in, the Bruins averaged 122.5 rushing yards per game. Saturday? 192.
“I take full responsibility for that,” senior defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood said. “I didn’t do my job staying in my gap. I didn’t do a good job of making a new line of scrimmage.”
The Bruins had their way with Smallwood and company, averaging 5.8 yards per rush, led by junior running back Bolu Olorunfunmi, who ran the ball 15 times for 79 yards.
While only generating four chunk plays on the ground, each went for over 20 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown by junior running back Soso Jamabo that gave UCLA its first — and only — lead of the night.
To their credit, the Sun Devils were able to generate 17 chunk plays of their own, but were unable to finish drives the way UCLA did.
Of their six complete second half drives, the Bruins scored three touchdowns and one field goal. The Sun Devils, conversely, kicked three field goals from inside the 10-yard line and scored a touchdown on a blocked punt.
“You have to score touchdowns,” Graham said. “You can’t kick field goals.”
Following the loss, Graham said he didn’t fault his players. Smallwood was not as kind to his peers, especially those on his side of the ball.
“All the things that we seen this week, the coaches did a good job of preparing us,” Smallwood said. “As a defense, we just didn’t execute.”
With ASU needing a win in one of its final two games to reach bowl eligibility, the focus shifts back to those plays that observers thought had been eliminated by defensive coordinator Phil Bennett over the past few weeks.
The mood of the fanbase has shifted from furious to jovial to concerned as the season has gone on, with this year eerily similar to those gone by, leading to a familiar refrain being uttered across the ASU community: same old Sun Devils.