Sun Devils shake off first half cobwebs; pound Cougars 52-31

TEMPE, Ariz. – Let’s not sugarcoat this: Arizona State played horribly in the first half against Washington State. There’s no two ways about it. Their offense played like they had two left feet. At the same time, freshman quarterback Luke Falk didn’t play like one.

Yet, through it all, the Sun Devils were never completely out of it.

Here’s a small microcosm of what happened in the first 15 minutes: the Cougars outgained the Sun Devils 129-22, Arizona State was 0-4 on third down, but they were only down 7-0.

It surely looked like the Sun Devils were asleep at the wheel, like they were in Corvallis, Ore., last Saturday night.

Oh, but that’s why they play four quarters in football and not one.

Washington State had a sizeable advantage yardage wise, but they only led 24-21 at the half.

All of a sudden, Arizona State wiped the sleep out of their eyes and ran away with the game in the second half. The Sun Devils scored 31 unanswered points to take complete control. They’d go on for a 52-31 win over a pesky Washington State team who didn’t play like a typical 3-7 team would.

Arizona State was able to take advantage of five Washington State turnovers, getting 35 of their 52 points off those miscues. The defense – which wasn’t able to get to Falk much early on – pushed him out of his comfort zone, sacking him six times and intercepting him on four separate occasions.

Arizona State couldn’t convert on a single third down possession in the first half [0-6], but they were nearly perfect in the second half, going 6-8. It was a complete turnaround for quarterback Taylor Kelly and the Sun Devils.

“It was huge, we just had to come out and execute,” Kelly said. “We weren’t doing that early on and we kind of lost our focus at the beginning of the game.”

“Our defense [did] a great job again, they’re unbelievable,” Kelly said. “You can always rely on them, and they rely on us. That’s what a great team is.”

It was an emotional day for Kelly, it being Senior Day at Sun Devil Stadium. In his final game in Tempe, Ariz., Kelly passed former quarterback Andrew Walter and became Arizona State’s all-time leader in career points.

“Coming off the field, the thing I’m gonna remember for the rest of my life [is] seeing the clock hit zero, looking at the fans, my coaches, my teammates and seeing their faces,” Kelly said. “It’s one of those memories I’m gonna remember for the rest of my life.”

The Cougars rolled up 622 yards on Arizona State’s defense. That’s a lot, but if you look deeper inside the numbers, you’ll see that Falk threw for 601 of those yards. Washington State was one of the worst running teams in all of FBS coming to Tempe, Ariz., and left the same. They had 21 yards rushing on 24 carries.

Safety Damarious Randall led the defense with 11 tackles and an interception. He credits Saturdays turnaround to the relentless pressure they put on Falk and the Cougars offense.

“We have an attacking style of defense, and with our great crowd that we have here with a lot of noise and the team really can’t communicate a lot when we do a lot of stemming and scheming, so it’s kind of hard for the offense,” Randall said.

Head coach Todd Graham said the team had a plan set before the game to rush four on the defensive front and play coverage, while relying on running back D.J. Foster, especially with wide receiver Jaelen Strong sitting the game out as a precaution after suffering a concussion against Oregon State last Saturday. Graham said they had to “scrap” those plans once they fell behind 21-7 in the second quarter.

However, the ability to force the Cougars into critical mistakes and taking advantage of them allowed the Sun Devils to get back to where they wanted to be.

“When you commit to being an attacking defense, those are things [that] are happening,” Graham said.

The defense came on strong and did their part, as did wide receiver Cameron Smith. Without their deepest and most deadly threat on the field in Strong, someone had to step his game up and Smith was that guy. Smith had six catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns.

“Cam is very, very smart, [a] man of few words,” Graham said. “I always tell him, ‘Hey, get me at least one touchdown,’ and as a matter of fact I told him, ‘I need two touchdowns,’ so he’s listening well. I’m really proud of him.”

Kelly said things didn’t change much on offense with Strong out, because of the level of talent they have on the roster.

“We don’t do anything differently, we have great players behind Jaelen [Strong] with Ellis Jefferson, [Cameron] Smith, Fred Gammage,” Kelly said. “Those guys stepped up. I found out today. He [Strong] felt fine but he just couldn’t make it.”

Arizona State conquered Washington State. Next up: the Territorial Cup showdown with the Arizona Wildcats next Friday in Tucson, Ariz. It’s a big game because both teams are 9-2, 6-2 in the Pac-12 South.

“It’s what it is all the time. You win 11 games and be 11-0 and lose this one and have an unsuccessful season,” Graham said. “That was explained to me when I got here by our fans, [and] that’s exactly how we approach it.”

“You can go in there and look in my staff room, it’s starred on the deal. It’s the most important game of the year,” Graham said.

 

 

 

 

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