Despite the return of junior defensive tackle Will Sutton to the Sun Devil starting line-up and a couple quick scoring strikes, Arizona State dropped its third consecutive conference game last Saturday as 11th ranked Oregon State rallied from an early double digit deficit to spoil ASU's hopes of springing an upset in Corvallis and reasserting themselves in the thick of the Pac-12 South divisional race.
"Obviously last week, after looking at the film, you've got to give Oregon State a lot of credit," said Sun Devil Head Coach Todd Graham on Monday. "They've got a really good and really disciplined football team. They dominated the game defensively in the second half and we had too many critical errors and gave up too many big plays defensively. We lost to a very good football team."
The Beavers' junior quarterback, Cody Vaz, led the charge on Saturday, completing 14-33 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns, twice connecting with Phoenix native Markus Wheaton for long scores. As good as the Sun Devils have been defensively so far this season, their inability to prevent the big scoring plays against Oregon State ultimately led to their demise as the Beavers struck for touchdowns from 49, 50 and 53 yards out in the comeback win.
"There were really two plays in the game," remarked Graham. "We blew two coverages. We've only blown seven coverages all year and two in that game. You shouldn’t have those this time of year. It was just miscommunication on both of them. They didn't communicate - very simple communication - and it cost us 14 points. But also too, they (Oregon State) executed. They executed perfectly and hit us basically where we left the guys uncovered."
After a recovered fumble for the game's first score and Cameron Marshall's 35th career rushing touchdown - putting him in sole possession of second place on Arizona State's all-time rushing touchdown list - ASU registered its first blocked punt of the season as Kevin Ayers charged into the backfield, leading to a safety for the Sun Devils. Despite the early efforts, Graham admits he was displeased with the way his team performed on special teams last Saturday even though they've excelled in the area in recent weeks, and hopes for a change as the team moves forward.
"I thought we played bad, special teams-wise," said the coach. "I thought we had been playing good, but our kickoff cover was not very good. Our kickoff return was not very good. Our punt cover was not very good. Our punter is absolutely exceptional. No question in my mind he's the best punter in the country. He has done a phenomenal job and has been a weapon for us, an absolute weapon for us. I'm really proud of the job he's done and how Josh Hubner has performed.
"I just thought there were a whole lot of things in the kicking game that we had steadily been getting better at," added Graham. "I thought that the last several weeks we had won on special teams but we did not win on special teams (last Saturday). Our coverage teams were poor. We did have a blocked punt and that was great but we had some opportunities for some big returns too. We had them held up and had some chances for some big returns but just weren't able to pop that on the punt return."
Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, they struggled just as much offensively after the early score as Oregon State began to flex its defensive muscle. Sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly had arguably his least productive game of the year, completing just 22-41 passes for a season-low 153 yards to go along with one touchdown and one interception.
"Was that game Taylor's best game? No," said Graham. "Do we need to get better? Yes. We were coming off of our best performance offensively (against UCLA). I think you have to look at the opponent. Every week the match-ups are different. I had a lot of confidence going into that game that we would be able to have success but we didn't. You have to give Coach Riley and them a lot of credit. Their defense was better than I thought it was on Saturday night. I thought their defense was good but we were just inept in the second half. We weren't able to move the football and get anything consistently going.
"Taylor has done a phenomenal job. He has been a great leader and he has been a great quarterback for us. He has been one of the most efficient guys in the country. As you get into the schedule, you're going to play good people. The last three weeks, the opponents have had a lot to do with it. One of the things we have to do is win those close games. The game Saturday would have been a lot closer than it was if not for the mental errors we made."
Even more baffling for Sun Devil fans was the disappearance of running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster against the Beavers. Entering the game, Foster led the team in rushing while Grice led the team in touchdowns scored for the season. On Saturday, the two combined for just nine carries and 36 yards while hauling in eight receptions for 52 yards.
"Execution all starts with the football and dispersing the football and getting in the hands of the guys who we what to get the football," commented Graham. "We're trying to get it in the hands of our best players as often as we can. With DJ and Marion, it's not anything that they did. Obviously our plan wasn't very good and we didn't get the ball to them the way we needed to."
Even with the three game losing streak and explosive offensive play of its opponents in recent weeks, Arizona State still remains atop the Pac-12 in defensive passing. The secondary this year, while thin on depth, has been aided by the stellar play of its seasoned veterans, including senior Deveron Carr and junior Osahon Irabor at the corner positions, along with Keelan Johnson and Alden Darby at safety. The ASU secondary is only allowing 161.5 yards through the air so far and has also come up with 12 interceptions, good for 17th in the country.
"We've given up two fades all year," said Graham with a smirk. "That's pretty amazing when you think of the amount of bump coverage that we play. I'm extremely proud of them. I think they have played extremely well and have battled. I think they have done a great job, I really do. To be where we were a year ago to where we are now, I think it's a credit to those young men and how hard they've worked.
"Many people look at those four guys, they're not very big people but they've done a great job," he added. "They have big hearts. They play hard. They're very talented. They're very smart. Our players as a whole have learned how to study and a different way how to prepare for games. I do see great and vast improvement in that area. I think the numbers kind of speak for themselves.
Here Come the Trojans
The Sun Devils now turn the sights on preparing for this weekend's contest as they get set to face USC in Los Angeles, where ASU has lost the last six meetings between the two teams. The Trojans, coming off last weekend's defeat to Oregon in The Coliseum, provide the Sun Devils another opportunity to defeat a ranked opponent on the road, but pose a formidable task for ASU as they feature a number of playmakers on both sides of the ball as they hope to keep pace with their rival Bruins in the Pac-12 South.
"Obviously Matt Barkley has a phenomenal arm and a great deep ball," commented Graham. "I've watched some passes that are just phenomenal. Marqise Lee is hands-down the best receiver in the country. He can catch the short screen pass, he can catch the vertical route, and he can take it to the house any time he puts his hands on the ball. Watching the Arizona game and watching the 300-plus yards receiving was absolutely phenomenal. And obviously, Woods is right there too.
"The thing they've really improved is their run game. Their offensive line is big and physical. They're very patient in their run game. Silas Redd's addition was a big addition for them. He's very good. They're very good offensively and you saw that last week."
Despite the plethora of offensive weapons the Trojans have at their disposal and challenges they provide, Graham remains optimistic that his Sun Devil will rise to the occasion on the road.
"Obviously there are a lot of things to contend with," he said. "You don't want to be sitting there trying to defend everything they do. You're going to have to dictate to them. You're going to have to mix things up and keep them off balance. The people who have had success against them had gotten takeaways. I think that's the key. The things that we're focusing on are discipline play, obviously not having penalties, and we have to get takeaways.
Keeping the Faith
With ASU is currently amidst a three game losing streak, similar to last season's five game losing streak to close out the year, Sun Devil fans have grown leery of what may loom ahead for the team. Despite that though, Coach Graham and his players have insisted numerous time recently that this team is different than last year's squad and still has plenty to play for. Even with the current losing skid halting the season's early success, Graham urges Sun Devil fans to remain supportive.
"What I would tell them is our football team has represented our fans, students and this university with great class and character," he expressed. "I've been very proud of how they've played. They've had many opportunities in the last three weeks to implode or take a step backwards but they haven't done that. And the season isn't over, is what I would tell them. We still have three games left to play.
"That's what's great about football, is that it emulates life. This thing is not over yet and obviously I know what being a Sun Devil is all about. When I think about what that means and you walk around here and see guys like Pat Tillman on the wall, we're surely not going to fold tent and quit with three games left and still an opportunity to compete for a championship. The next step for us is to go out and win a championship. I want the expectations to be there."
Undoubtedly, there were high expectations from the Sun Devils following their 5-1 start, and the ASU Head Coach doesn’t wants those who follow the team to lower their expectations of what the maroon and gold can accomplish.
"We're obviously just getting started and we've had three tough weeks here but let's get to the end of the season and then we'll evaluate where we're at,” Graham said. “Just don't give up on us because I guarantee there's no give-up in our guys. Anything worth having is not easy to accomplish, so just stick with us and keep being supportive of what we're doing. We appreciate what they're doing and we're going to get there."