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ASU Football: Sun Devils lose 15-14 in a death by kicking at The Farm

Winning team had zero touchdowns

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Stanford D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

PALO ALTO, CALIF. - Arizona State scored two first half touchdowns. Its top receiver set a new career high in yards. The defense did not allow a touchdown. It possessed the lead for 44 minutes and 19 seconds of game time.

And somehow, the Sun Devils (2-5, 1-3 Pac-12) lost the game, 15-14, to Stanford (3-4, 1-4 Pac-12).

In a way, all the frustrations of this incredibly agitating season were neatly packaged in an afternoon of glaring offensive inefficiencies and Stanford’s Joshua Karty’s kicking five field goals, tying a school record, for an ultimately winning total of 15 points.

“It’s good to not give up a touchdown but we still gave up 15 points,” Sun Devil defensive back Jordan Clark said postgame, wiping tears from his eyes. “It’s not ‘bend, don’t break’. It’s never bend. Never break.”

Arizona State took a 14-6 lead into the locker room at halftime. Playing in front of a paltry crowd at Stanford Stadium, the Sun Devils had the lead, and a career day already from Elijhah Badger. The redshirt sophomore was sensational in the first half, with five catches for 98 yards, the highest yardage total in his Sun Devil career with two quarters left to play.

But in the second half, what was a harmonious offensive attack devolved into uninspired runs, multiple drives where the Sun Devils played from behind schedule, and play calls that ultimately doomed them to the death by kicking in Palo Alto.

The most polarizing play call of the contest was made in the fourth quarter. The game was then 14-12, as Stanford had chopped the Sun Devil lead to a place where one more Karty field goal would incomprehensibly put the Cardinal on top. Arizona State had driven the ball on to the Stanford side of the field. On the drive, Badger had secured what would be his only catch in the half for a gain of 20 yards.

Arizona State faced a 3rd & 5 from the Stanford 39-yard line. Sun Devil quarterback Emory Jones, at that point a fine 12 for 18 passing, turned and handed the ball to X Valladay, who went absolutely nowhere. Actually, he went somewhere, backwards, for a 1-yard loss.

4th & 6. Sun Devils head coach Shaun Aguano sent out the punting unit.

“We can go back and second-guess,” Aguano said. “Analytics says 4th & 2, you got for it. We didn’t get those two and got stopped behind.”

Throughout the week leading up to the game, one of the primary questions posed to Aguano was why Jones would play over backup quarterback Trenton Bourguet. After all, Jones had looked ineffective as a signal caller in the team’s 1-4 start, and Bourguet had authored the euphoric victory over Washington two Saturdays ago with three touchdowns and a 71.4 percent completion rate.

Aguano’s response to reporters on Monday was to stick with the Florida transfer.

“My philosophy was we’re never going to penalize an injured player, so it’s Emory’s job back.”

A vote of confidence on Monday. But not on Saturday.

On 3rd & 5, with possession on the opponents side of the field, Aguano and offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas could have allowed Jones to extend the drive with his arm. Badger had eclipsed the 100-yard mark on his previous catch and was in the formation. Hindsight is always 20/20, but even a field goal there requires Stanford to score a touchdown, something the Cardinal were incapable of the entire afternoon.

Instead, Badger was a bystander in a spiritless trudge near the original line of scrimmage.

“Honestly, I think the play calling was a little different in the second half,” Badger said. “I have no clue, I just did my job honestly.”

Badger would still finish the day with his best game as a Sun Devil. Six catches for 118 yards and a touchdown, but he was not the same threat from the first half during the final 30 minutes of action. Still, it was the breakout game many Sun Devil fans had been yearning for after the former four-star committed to play football in Tempe back in 2020.

The Sun Devils would punt, and Eddie Czaplicki’s boot was expertly deposited at the 1-yard line. But after Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee rode a surge on a quarterback sneak from his offensive line out to the 5-yard line, there was a palpable sense that momentum had switched jerseys.

The Cardinal embarked on a surgical go-ahead drive of 15 plays and 70 yards. By the end, Karty had his fifth field goal of the game, and Stanford had its first lead since the score was 3-0 with 10 minutes left in the first quarter.

Throughout the afternoon for Stanford, RPO was on the menú and served liberally. In his time at Stanford, head coach David Shaw has transformed the Cardinal from the brutish, smash-mouth offensive scheme implemented by Jim Harbaugh into the Carnegie Hall of run-pass option.

No team runs a more deliberate, slow-developing RPO than the Stanford Cardinal, and after running it into a seemingly fortified wall of Sun Devil defenders in the first three quarters, the Cardinal found cracks in the concrete at the most critical juncture of the game. Offenses evolve and defenses respond, that’s football, but RPO is one of the most complex recent innovations in the game, and can put a strain on an opposing defense; especially in short yardage situations, where Stanford repeatedly converted third downs, finishing 9 for 19 on the day.

“It’s always hard, because you ask your whole defense to run to the football but now you’re telling the secondary you can’t run to the football, because you need to keep the eyes on all the RPOs,” Aguano said. “They do a pretty good job. They caught us a couple times. Overall, we did a good job against their run, made them pass a little bit.”

Stanford passed more than a little. McKee, the former No. 4-ranked quarterback in a 2018 class that featured Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and JT Daniels, ranked above him in that order, threw 13 more times than he ever had previously in his collegiate career. He finished 33 for 58 with 320 yards passing, and a first half interception thrown to Jordan Clark.

The Sun Devils would have two more chances on offense following the Stanford drive, needing just a field goal of their own to leapfrog the Cardinal once more. The normally reliable Carter Brown had poorly struck a 42-yard field goal attempt in the first half, and missed short. But with a tangible range of 53 yards in live action this fall, the Sun Devils would not have to drive far to have a shot.

The first chance ended in a frustrating delay of game on the Stanford side of the field and subsequent punt from Czaplicki. But the defense, stellar all day long, won the ball back for the Sun Devil offense for one final drive.

“I thought they did a good job,” Aguano said of the defense. “That kicker was on target today, making five field goals.”

“We just got to be better.”

Under two minutes left, and a promising Sun Devil drive to the Stanford 34 yard line nearly unraveled as Jones took a sack on second down and fumbled. An alert play from Sun Devil offensive lineman Isaia Glass to pounce on the loose ball kept the Sun Devils alive, but the offense would have to burn third down with a spike to stop the clock.

The game would come down to a 4th & 19. The Sun Devils were on the Stanford side of the 50 yard line, but out of field goal range. Jones bought time in the pocket, and looked left, where inexplicably, the Cardinal secondary had let Badger get behind them.

Jones let the ball fly, and for a moment in time, it looked as if the maligned quarterback would connect with his top target and rescue the day for the Sun Devils.

Then the ball reached Badger. An errant throw. Sailing out of bounds. That was until Badger’s right hand shot into the air, and he secured a remarkable catch, corkscrewing his body against the boundary at the 1-yard line.

But David Shaw was not convinced Badger had gotten a foot down in the field of play and ran out to the numbers at the 20-yard line to call timeout. There was a look of smug confidence on Shaw’s face as he asked for a replay review, indicating he knew what the rest of Stanford Stadium was about to find out. Badger’s toes were on the white. Turnover on downs. Ballgame.

“I thought I was in, fully,” Badger recalled. “I thought I really scored at the time the way my momentum was moving, but yeah I thought I was in.”

Call a spade a spade, an accurate pass wins the game and turns the tide of an emotional season with back-to-back victories. It also puts Aguano squarely in the race to contend for the head coaching position next year. Arizona State maybe even competes for a bowl game, which would be one of the best accomplishments in program history considering the tumult of the past three seasons.

Instead, Jones misfired. Would Bourguet have hit the pass? There is no way to tell, but perhaps that is what will frustrate the fan base the most. Maybe Aguano’s philosophy will change this week.