Merlin Robertson made the play the Sun Devil defense needed.
Or so it seemed for about eight seconds.
The redshirt junior linebacker scampered down the sideline after picking off BYU quarterback Jaren Hall. As Robertson approached the BYU 10-yard line, Cougar running back Tyler Allgeier chased him down, lifted himself off Robertson’s shoulder pad, and brought down the hammer of Zeus to jar the ball loose.
With the third quarter winding down a swarm of Cougars was there to secure the loose ball, and what looked like a game changing play in ASU’s favor was suddenly the biggest gut punch in a night that featured one at every turn.
“That’s kind of how the game went, that play,” Edwards said postgame. “It’s hard to watch, when we have this many penalties.”
All week long, Herm Edwards and the Arizona State football team prepared to face a talented BYU squad and endure a hostile road environment for the first time since 2019. Saturday night in Provo, Utah, however, the Sun Devils’ biggest opponent was themselves.
For the second time in three games, ASU couldn’t get out of its own way. The 17 penalties, four turnovers, and finally an inability to stop the BYU offense when it mattered most led to a gut-wrenching 27-17 loss.
“The discipline of our team is not very good, and it starts with me,” Edwards said postgame. “It starts with me, I’ve gotta fix it, that’s my responsibility. We got away with it the first two games, but there’s just way too many penalties.”
The trouble started early. About as early as it possibly could have. On the game’s opening kickoff, Geordon Porter fielded a booming kick about five yards deep in the end zone and chose to take it out. His aggressive decision immediately backfired, as he was hit and fumbled. BYU took over on the ASU 12 and immediately scored. One of Edwards’ keys to weathering a hostile road crowd, starting strong, was immediately forfeited.
For much of the first quarter following the disastrous opening kickoff and ensuing BYU score, ASU was clearly the better team. The Sun Devils responded to the touchdown swiftly, as Jayden Daniels hooked up with Andre Johnson on a beautiful deep ball to set up first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Not wasting any time, Rachaad White powered through the line on the next snap to tie the game.
“BYU was dropping eight, giving me a lot of time,” Daniels said. “I was able to work those windows and get throws connected with receivers. They had a good day but I think that they weren’t satisfied.”
The tide turned dramatically in the second quarter. The poise ASU showed in the opening period left them as quickly as BYU was able to strike twice to take a two-score lead into the half. Touchdowns on a wild double reverse turned flea flicker and a broken play turned wide open score sent the Cougar faithful into a frenzy. The same ASU defense that suffocated BYU in the first quarter looked especially porous in the second.
As much as it looked dead in the water as the teams headed into the locker rooms, Arizona State played angry and imposed its will in the third quarter. After forcing a three-and-out on BYU’s opening possession, Daniyel Ngata reminded everyone that he too made the trip to Provo. The redshirt freshman running back gashed the BYU defense, rushing for 51 yards on four carries on the scoring drive, punctuated by a 10-yard touchdown run to put ASU within seven points.
The Sun Devil defense again responded on the ensuing possession, forcing another three and out.
An ASU drive stalled in Cougar territory before Cristian Zendejas spilt the uprights from 38 yards out to make it a four-point game.
The flash of offensive efficiency the third quarter provided would be the last of its kind for the Sun Devils, who false started and held their way backwards on their only remaining offensive possession. The jubilant BYU student section played a role in each of the dead ball fouls ASU committed, an issue that players were confident wouldn’t be one during the past week.
“Their crowd played a big factor in this game,” Daniels said. “We can’t have penalties like that if we expect to win big games. It’s something we have to learn from and move on.”
While Robertson’s “interception that never was” will be the play most remembered of this game, it should go down as the play in which the team that never once deserved to win this game almost did. The mistakes weren’t just limited to the players, as video showed that Robertson’s foot was likely out of bounds before the ball was stripped away from him.
“That’s what I heard,” Edwards said when asked whether he knew Robertson may have stepped out. “I guess (we could ask for a review) if we knew it, but I don’t know that then. Somebody told us later that he stepped out of bounds, doesn’t do us any good now.”
Add it to the list. It’s a long list, and one that will certainly need to be addressed if ASU is to win the Pac-12 South, a division that right now resembles more of a fiery car wreck than a subset of a Power Five conference.
We’ll find out a week from tonight if this game will serve as a wake up call for an incredibly talented team that has been beaten senseless by itself over its first three games. It didn’t matter against Southern Utah, it didn’t matter in the first half against UNLV. It mattered big time on the road against BYU.
“I can’t figure it out, because we don’t practice that way,” Edwards said. “We didn’t help ourselves tonight. We hurt ourselves.”