The first half stats are nearly identical. Both teams were within 10 yards of each other in total offense. The time of possession battle was split directly 50/50, and the Sun Devils did not punt once.
However, in what seemed like the blink-of-an-eye, Washington State(5-4, 4-2 Pac-12) led 28-7. That would be a strong enough foundation to build a 34-21 victory over Arizona State (5-3, 3-2).
What could possibly have been the difference?
Simply, Wazzu had the luxury of playing on a field half the size of the one with which the Sun Devils operated.
Football is a representation of combat, the old school kind, where victory is earned in ground gained and ground lost. In this game, the Cougars started their battles with half of the ground war already won. The average starting position for Wazzu first-half drives was the Sun Devil 36-yard line, just over a third of the total field.
The Sun Devils average starting position was their own 36, almost twice as long as the Cougars’s field. ASU made it twice as hard on themselves.
How does this happen?
Turnovers, and a lot of them at that. Three out of the first 13 plays ended in a fumble or interception, including two of the first three. Credit is due for the playmakers on the Cougar defense, but all three were preventable. Deamonte Trayanum and Bryan Thompson could not secure the ball for a full play on the two fumbles. Daniels threw an easily-preventable interception on first down deep in Wazzu territory.
It was not as if ASU could not move the ball, they simply could not hang onto it, out gaining Wazzu on the first two drives, but trailing in the points department.
“It [became] one of those games where you’re giving the team energy,” Sun Devil coach Herm Edwards said. “They hit some big balls on us down the rail in man-coverage, and they hit those. The 50/50 ball they caught, and we had some opportunities and did not hit them.”
How does an interim head-coach on his first road trip at the helm out prepare ASU, who came off a bye?
While ASU turned the ball over on its first four drives, the Cougars turned two of those cough-ups into touchdowns. The one time ASU forced a turnover (Merlin Robertson interception), Christian Zendejas made a field goal that was called back due to a holding, then missed the 32-yard follow-up.
Starting to see a pattern?
Even with a late first-half score, a three possession halftime deficit (largest of 2021), was enough to keep the Sun Devils at bay. Down 28-7 midway through the third quarter, Edwards elected to punt on fourth-and-short around midfield.
Down 21-7 against BYU, the Sun Devils scored 10 unanswered points out of halftime to make it a game. Was there nothing in that game script to call back to in this game?
What’s even more baffling is the second-half play-calling from Zak Hill. Hill, who is usually regarded for his scheming on the offensive side, could not generate any production out of his unit. Two weeks in a row, the offense ran out of any creative juice in the first half. The third quarter comes along and any scheming is thrown out the window.
“I gotta tip my hat to Washington State,” Zak Hill said. “They came out and played well and created some turnovers...they’ve done a good job of that all year....with five turnovers you can’t expect to win that game.”
Multiple times, Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura took gambles with his arm that paid off. Two throws, the team’s first touchdown to Travell Harris and a drop-in-the-bucket dime to Calvin Jackson Jr. down the sideline, were deep shots with closely contested coverage. Regardless, de Laura pulled the trigger, and both led to Wazzu scores.
Hill’s offense simply does not allow for those types of plays. So much emphasis is put on getting Daniels’s receivers open in space through scheme, but rarely is he ever able to maximize his potential and take a shot. Those are the plays that separate conference opponents. They are also the ones that will improve Daniels’s draft stock.
He has to be able to throw contested passes at the next level, why not start now?
“We just gotta hit [those passes],” Hill said. “We had some opportunities and missed a few things. There were a few drops and they didn’t end up working out. I’m comfortable with Jayden, he’s a great football player and I’ve got complete trust in him.”
For the first time all season, ASU did not rush for 100 yards. The second-lowest total came a couple weeks ago at Utah with 148. The absence of Rachaad White threw off the entire offensive rhythm and any sense of rhythm. The run attack was certainly never intimidating, at least like it had been in the past.
It’s tough to tell whether that was the entire reason for the offensive failures, but the expectation within the program is that Trayanum and Daniyel Ngata should fill that role effortlessly. That was not the case on Saturday.
After the game, Edwards admitted the team does not control its own destiny anymore.
“At this point, we just gotta win a game.”