With the clock winding down, and the ball deep in Sun Devil territory, it was fairly clear Wisconsin needed one more first down to seal the deal in Las Vegas.
ASU held its collective breath as it stopped the Badgers on third-and-short, but everyone saw the yellow laundry laying alone near the far sideline. Penalties have been near synonymous with Arizona State football, so few were surprised the flag signaled a Sun Devil infraction.
Offsides. First down. Game over, season over. How fitting for this 2021 season?
Seconds later it was a done deal. Arizona State (8-5) lost the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl 20-13 to Wisconsin (9-4) on Thursday night at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
“I always say ‘we just ran out of time,’” Herm Edwards said. “We gave up four big plays this game that really got us.”
Down a plethora of players to opt-outs and the transfer portal, ASU entered the matchup against Wisconsin severely short-handed. That’s not to say the Badgers had their own COVID/injury issues, but it was widely reported the Sun Devils would be playing at about half-strength for this postseason affair.
Unsurprisingly, the Sun Devil offense operated around the “off-schedule” plays from quarterback Jayden Daniels in the run game off passing plays. Down Chip Trayanum and Rachaad White, and with Wisconsin having the highest-ranked run-defense in the country, Daniels and company took a few more shots, while scrambling by design a little more than usual.
“Hats off to Wisconsin, their defensive coordinator, and their defensive staff,” Zak Hill said, “We knew it was going to be tough running the football, so we needed to hit some big plays and some big shots. You always want to hit more.”
Driving down into Wisconsin territory on the opening drive, Daniels threw a costly interception, thwarting a solid opening script from ASU.
Daniels led all Sun Devil rushers with 19 carries for 40 yards (after sacks). He threw the aforementioned interception, and did not find the end zone through the air (159 yards passing).
Daniyel Ngata was the feature-back for ASU for the first time in his career, and was largely disappointing (11 carries, 23 yards, one touchdown). While Wisconsin came into the game only allowing just over 60 yards per-game on the ground, expectations for Ngata were higher given his projected carry share.
Wisconsin allowed 241 yards per-game to opponents in 2021. ASU only gained 219 total yards on offense Thursday.
The first-quarter turnover set up Wisconsin perfectly for a short drive, on which they capitalized with an eight-yard touchdown run from fullback John Chenal to take the 7-0 lead.
Both teams traded scores on each following possession, starting with an ASU field goal from Christian Zendejas. The Badgers, however, had more success completing drives. WIsconsin quarterback Graham Mertz found a wide open Jake Ferguson off a defensive breakdown in the secondary to extend the lead to 14-3.
It was clear from quarter one that Badger running back Braelon Allen would have little trouble succeeding against a depleted Sun Devil defense. On the Mertz-Ferguson touchdown drive, Allen rushed for 64 yards, including a 43-yarder that flipped the field. He finished the night with 29 carries for 159 yards.
The large pool of ASU players opting out provided much-needed playing time for some of the Sun Devils’ younger defenders, including budding freshmen prospects Eric Gentry and BJ Green. Gentry, a second-team Freshman All-American, had five tackles including a third-down tackle for loss.
Green added two sacks on the evening.
“[Green] is very active when you get him on stunts and games,” Edwards said. “When he gets the edges and things…he’s a good rusher for us.”
After the Ngata touchdown and down 20-13 in the fourth quarter, Daniels completed a third-and-long conversion to Jalin Conyers which lit a momentum spark that did not catch fire. On the next set of downs, Daniels was sacked for the fifth time in the game, resulting in a punt.
Wisconsin’s offense went dormant at the same time casual football watchers tucked themselves in for the evening (halftime did not begin until about midnight Eastern Standard Time). However, 20 first-half points proved successful in the long-term.
“We came out and knew what they wanted to do,” captain Kyle Soelle said. “We did what we were supposed to do in the second half, we just didn’t do that in the first [half.]”
“I thought we were a better team in the second half,” Edwards said. “I thought we really had some energy and got going offensively. We gave up four big plays in this game that got us.”
The Badgers did not earn one yard of offense and punted three times in the second half before unleashing an 18-play, 90-yard drive that lasted nine minutes and 57 seconds, running the clock down to triple-zeros for the victory.
Arizona State finishes the season at 8-5, and in second place in the Pac-12 South. Herm Edwards and Jayden Daniels both announced their intentions to return to the program in 2022 after the regular season finale against Arizona. However, amidst a continuing NCAA investigation, there are still many unanswered questions heading into the 2022 offseason.