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ASU Football: Sun Devils clinch meaningless end to catastrophic season with loss to Washington State

A bowl game now impossible, what are the priorities in the final weeks?

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

If there was one game all season where an individual needed to elevate his play to take over for ASU (3-7, 2-5 Pac-12), it was Saturday at Washington State (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12).

If there was one game all season where all three phases needed to trend in a positive direction, it was Saturday at Washington State.

If there was one game all season to do everything humanely possible to stay in the game, it was Saturday at Washington State.

Coming into Saturday’s matchup, ASU controlled its own destiny: win out, and play in a bowl game. The Sun Devils seen on the field in Pullman did not reflect those circumstances, and ASU lost its last shot at a postseason game with a 28-18 loss to the Cougars.

“It was a lack of execution on my part,” interim head coach Shaun Aguano said. “It was a lack of execution on third-down. We knew they were going to bring pressure and we had to win those one-on-one battles and convert, and we didn’t. We put ourselves in situations that we shouldn’t be in.”

A quick slap in the face

ASU found itself at a disadvantage before the game even started. It was announced shortly before kickoff that captain linebacker Kyle Soelle would miss the game with an upper-body injury. Starting cornerbacks Ro Torrence and Isaiah Johnson also were ruled out with a sickness that ravaged its way through the Sun Devil locker room to start November.

Washington scored two touchdowns on two of its first three drives, accelerating to a 13-0 lead before ASU could even blink (PAT was blocked on the second score).

Meanwhile on offense, starting quarterback Trenton Bourguet was left for slaughter in the first quarter by his offensive line. Center Ben Scott went down with an injury early, and captain LaDarius Henderson missed his fourth game in-a-row. Bourguet started the first two drives going 1-for-5 for 7 yards. He was sacked once, with the ball coming loose and rolling to the ASU one yard-line. He also suffered a delay-of-game penalty on the second play of the game.

Bourguet came into the game with a 67% completion-rate against the blitz. On Saturday, he could barely get off a throw.

The writing was on the wall.

“(Washington State) knew that in this weather we would have a hard time throwing the football,” Aguano said on the postgame radio show. “So they brought some quarter and cap pressure, then they brought some field pressure with the Nickel-Sam (backer) and tried to stuff us in there and then go and play man, and we had to make the option-routes count, and we didn’t do that.”

Bourguet received a heck of a beating before exiting with a lower-body injury. In stepped Emory Jones, who had not played since his start at Stanford. Jones (15-23, 186 yards, two touchdowns) found the same lack-of-success in the first half, and the Cougars tacked on two more first-half scores for a 28-0 lead going into halftime.

Don’t call it a comeback...seriously, don’t.

Just like last week, televisions were muted, and radios were silenced as ASU crawled back from a four-score deficit in the second half. X Valladay (189 all-purpose yards, one touchdown) kept chipping away. Tight end Jalin Conyers rumbled and stumbled into his fourth touchdown of the year.

But for those who watched both games, the “comebacks” were nothing like the Hollywood movies. They were products of garbage-time inertia against backups from better teams, and they looked like it too.

In another head-scratching maneuver, Aguano opted to go for the two-point conversion after ASU scored its first touchdown to trail 28-6, an identical maneuver to the highly-criticized one last week against UCLA. Once again, it didn’t work.

Not when they scored the first touchdown, or the second. When they actually needed a two-point conversion down 28-18 after an Elijhah Badger touchdown Saturday, the failed again on the third score.

Instead of being down by seven points with a minute remaining awaiting an onside kick attempt, the Sun Devils were done. With 0:58 on the clock and ASU now down 10, Shaun Aguano had quite literally coached ASU out of the game.

“When you read the analytics books, if you’re going to be aggressive and you score and get the two points, then a touchdown wins the game,” Aguano said last week, when ASU came within two scores. “I don’t want to be in a situation where I kick and we’re seven and seven and then have to go for the two. I want to make sure that if I don’t get it, I’m down by eight. I’m going to go for the two anyway.”

What’s next?

Normally, teams with a few inconsequential games to end the season can find meaning somewhere. Have an up-and-coming position coach call plays. Start the freshman quarterback. Sneak a couple trick plays on the opening drive. Tinker around.

The thing is, ASU already pulled out all the stops and acts of desperation. They’ve reeked of it all year.

The coaching change came after week three. After the switch, defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson molded a more aggressive defensive game plan, barely. Aguano took over play-calling duties in week nine, along with a quarterback change in favor of Bourguet in the same week. There is not a whole lot left with which to mess around.

For the players, the vigor of the transfer portal requires a new film reel every season, and it is getting to be shopping time for those with transfer eligibility. The coaching situation in Tempe post-season is becoming murkier by the minute, and there is no guarantee Aguano will be on the staff, in any capacity, come January. Players playing for themselves equals bad football.

It’s a toxic breeding-ground for poor culture within the locker room, and a lot of decisions will quietly be made in the coming weeks. If athletic director Ray Anderson is any good at his job, he is two steps ahead of the chaos.

But just how believable does that sound?