Yet on the cusp of bowl eligibility, Arizona State (5-5, 4-3 Pac-12) fell to UCLA (5-5, 3-4) by a single score, 44-37, on Saturday night.
“Man, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have won this game,” Tashon Smallwood said.
The Sun Devils scored twice to begin the game, stirring a momentous 14-0 lead. That margin split in half after Manny Wilkins was intercepted by Nate Meadors who ran it 26 yards back for a pick-six. UCLA QB Josh Rosen then tied the game on a 1-yard touchdown run.
From there it was anyone’s contest. The Sun Devils just didn’t take it.
“Completely changed the game,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said of the interception. “That can’t happen. That was very, very poor.”
Coming into Saturday night, UCLA owned the Pac-12’s worst rushing defense, allowing opposing offenses to rack up roughly 300 yards per contest. The Sun Devils were well aware, as they ran the ball 61 times for 294 yards.
It wasn’t enough. Three points aren’t as good as seven.
“We ran the ball... What’d we average per run? We should have ran the ball into the end zone every time we got into the red zone. And we got behind in the game, so we tired to throw the ball then kick field goals,” Graham said.
The Sun Devils averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
Arizona State’s final three kicks were from 22, 22, and 23 yards out respectively. Each kick being inside the 10-yard line. In other words, touchdowns in the making that were less than a first down away.
“The difference is you got to score touchdowns,” Graham said. “You can’t kick field goals.”
But the Sun Devils still scored 37 points. It was just the second time all season ASU scored that total or more. Defensively, it was just the second time ASU had given up over 40 points all season.
Mainly it was because of Rosen.
“He’s going to get his yards. He’s going to do his things,” Graham said. “You’re just not going to stop him. I think of all the quarterbacks we’ve played, he’s the best we’ve played.”
Rosen garnered his first career 400-yard passing game in a 23-20 loss to ASU last season. It was the last game he played in 2016 after suffering a season-ending injury.
Coming off another injury, Rosen had missed six quarters of football and a week of practice before throwing for 381 yards with two touchdowns against the Sun Devils.
This time, he was in his own stadium and had the luxury of an overbearingly productive offensive line. Rosen had been sacked 19 times this season. On Saturday, he wasn’t sacked once.
ASU’s last sack-less performance came in a loss to Stanford. Under Graham, the Sun Devils are just 1-6 when not gaining a sack.
“I thought we got in there. He was hard to sack. I mean, I thought there were four or five times we could have sacked him that he did a tremendous job getting away,” Graham said.
Aside from not getting to Rosen, it was the UCLA running game that really hampered the Sun Devils. ASU let up four rushes for over 20 yards and let the Bruins race for 194 yards on the ground for three touchdowns.
“I take full responsibility in that. I didn’t do my job,” Smallwood said. “I didn’t do my job staying in the gap. I didn’t do a good job at making a new line of scrimmage.”
Now, the Sun Devils venture to Corvallis, Oregon still on the brink of bowl eligibility. The Oregon State Beavers lost 49-28 to Arizona on Saturday night, dropping to 1-9 overall and 0-7 in Pac-12 play. While nightmares of 2014’s debacle may haunt the Sun Devils, it is by far the weakest opponent on ASU’s schedule.
The Sun Devils just have to execute.