TEMPE - At times, it seemed like the Sun Devils were just a play or two away from capturing their second victory of the season Saturday night.
Then, a key mistake would sink ASU into situations it often failed to overcome.
Dropped passes, critical second half mistakes and constant explosive plays from the SDSU offense and special teams units sunk Arizona State (1-1) in a 30-20 loss to the San Diego State Aztecs (2-0) Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
The Aztecs were the first to get on the board Saturday night, as senior running back Rashaad Penny took advantage of a huge hole on the left side of the line and took the ball 95 yards to the end zone to give SDSU an early 7-0 lead.
Penny had an incredible performance during week two, tallying 254 yards of total offense and two touchdowns and adding a 95-yard kick return score.
After a few stalled drives on offense, the Sun Devils eventually answered with an impressive 85-yard touchdown drive of their own as time expired in the first quarter to level the score at 7-7.
Wilkins connected on multiple deep pass attempts on the drive, one while rolling out of the pocket on a third and seven to sophomore receiver Kyle Williams for 29 yards and another for 42 yards to redshirt freshman Frank Darby to put the Devils on the 1-yard line. Senior running back Kalen Ballage then punched in the touchdown to even the score.
Penny answered quickly for SDSU with an electrifying 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, regaining a 14-7 lead for the Aztecs.
Following the loss, ASU head coach Todd Graham seemed at a loss for words over ASU’s performance on special teams.
“I’ve never experienced that,” Graham said. “We probably gave up at least 10-13 points on special teams. That was pretty uncharacteristic of us, that was a disaster.”
The Sun Devils continued to struggle on offense during the second period, giving the Aztecs multiple chances to extend their lead.
Arizona State was abysmal when it came to running the ball Saturday night, gaining just 44 yards on 31 carries against SDSU. The Devils seemed to be anxiously awaiting their next big break, a habit that Graham didn’t want the team to get stuck in.
“We gotta run the ball better than that,” Graham said. “We had no running game. We relied upon the big play.”
SDSU had yet another impressive drive midway through the second quarter, but it ultimately stalled due to multiple momentum-killing penalties that pushed the Aztecs out of the red zone. San Diego State would add a field go to extend its lead to 17-7.
Wilkins connected on four of five passes during the Sun Devils final scoring drive of the half, including a beautiful touch pass to the corner of the end zone to sophomore receiver N’Keal Harry for a touchdown. The Devils had closed the deficit to 17-14.
With just under a minute left in the first half, redshirt sophomore Michael Sleep-Dalton shanked a punt deep in the Devils’ own territory, sending it 12 yards before it sailed out of bounds. The Aztecs capitalized on their terrific field position, adding a field goal to go take a 20-14 lead into the half.
Although both offenses struggled to garner any momentum early in the second half, the Sun Devils missed a huge opportunity to take their first lead of the game with just under seven minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Wilkins launched a home run ball from midfield that was right on the money to redshirt sophomore John Humphrey, but the ball bounced in and out of the receiver’s hands for an incompletion. Arizona State then failed to convert on fourth down and turned the ball over to SDSU.
The Aztecs capitalized on Humphrey’s crucial mistake and marched the ball 58 yards down the field for a score, extending the San Diego State lead to 27-14.
The Devils had SDSU pinned on a third and 21 from ASU’s 33 later in the quarter, but Aztec junior quarterback Christian Chapman escaped pressure in the pocket and found Penny wide open in the flats. The senior then took it 33 yards untouched into the end zone for his third touchdown of the night.
When asked what his defensive unit failed to execute Saturday night, senior defenisve lineman Tashon Smallwood admitted that there was a lot to work on.
“Missed assignments, just being undisciplined in some of our keys,” Smallwood said. “Just little things. Not getting off the field on third down, all those things add up, add up to a loss.”
Wilkins added to the list of crucial mistakes the Sun Devils made in the second half with a critical fumble from ASU’s own 30-yard line and the Aztecs notched another field goal to extend their lead to 30-14.
The redshirt junior quarterback mentioned after the game that the Devils simply didn’t make plays when they needed to, and gave credit to what he believes was a solid opponent.
“When the ball gets put in your hands you gotta make a play, when the ball gets put in my hands I gotta throw it and make the right decisions,” Wilkins said. “We didn’t do that tonight. But that team that we played is a very good football team.
Arizona State battled back with a drive that lasted well over six minutes, traveling 75 yards on ten plays and netting a touchdown to come within ten.
After getting sacked twice, Wilkins launched a 53-yard touchdown to Darby on the drive. The redshirt freshman had a terrific night for the ASU offense, tallying three receptions for 111 yards and a score.
The Devils had a chance to get the ball back as they pinned the Aztecs on their own 21-yard line on a third and long, but Penny found a hole and exploited it for 27 yards and a first down.
Arizona State eventually stopped the Aztecs as SDSU attempted to seal the game on a fourth down conversion, but failed to muster any offensive production down the field on their final drive of the game. The scoreline would remain 30-20 in favor of San Diego State as time ran out Saturday night, handing the Sun Devils their first loss of the 2017-18 campaign.
The loss was especially difficult for Graham and ASU as the program had decorated the field, worn special helmets and had a pre-game moment of silence to honor the late Frank Kush, a legendary former Sun Devil football coach that passed away in late June.
Graham acknowledged the fact that he and his team let the legend down, adding that he had often spoken about Kush to his team in preparation for the game.
“I talked about Frank last night and today,” Graham said. “I know our guys knew him and what he was about. I know we did a poor job honoring him tonight.”
The Sun Devils head on the road to take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders (1-0) in Lubbock, Texas next week in a matchup that should prove just as exciting as the instant classic the two programs played in just a year ago.
Eliminating key mistakes and removing any potential for game-changing plays on the defensive side of the ball will be key goals for the Sun Devils in their matchup next week, as they look to clean up their play before conference play begins in late September.