SAN DIEGO – Let’s start at the end of No. 25 Arizona State’s 28-21 loss to San Diego State Saturday night and work back to the end of the first half.
ASU wide receiver Frank Darby swears he held on to a fourth-and-10 Hail Mary at the 2-yard line despite a vicious hit by Trenton Thompson resulting in the safety’s ejection and the pass being ruled incomplete after a video review of the targeting penalty.
So instead of ASU having a crack at tying the game from two yards out in the final six seconds, the final play at SDCCU Stadium was from the 35-yard line. Quarterback Manny Wilkins again tried for a jump ball to Darby that safety Parker Baldwin batted down, preserving a game the Aztecs (2-1) dominated in the second half.
“No doubt in my mind, I caught that pass,” insisted Darby, who had to retrieve his mouthpiece knocked out by Thompson. “That was a grown-man catch. I came down and I fell and I put the ball on the floor. That’s what happened. I’m telling you I caught that pass.”
Except it didn’t stand up to a review that San Diego State coach Rocky Long said would have been checked even without a targeting call.
“When that happens, they’re going to look at every facet of the play,” ASU coach Herm Edwards said. “It just happened they said he didn’t catch it. We had a good play dialed up to maybe score, but it didn’t work out that way.”
ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins takes blame for Saturday night’s loss at San Diego State.
Jeff Metcalfe, azcentral sports
Instead, ASU (2-1) is forced to accept its second loss in as many years to San Diego State after going 10-0-1 in the first 11 meetings and Edwards’ first defeat as the Sun Devils’ head coach. Edwards completed his college playing career with the Aztecs in 1976 and hired defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales and defensive backs coach Tony White away from his alma mater.
“I thought we were the much better team in the second half,” said Long, a 20-year mentor for Gonzales. “To let them drive down the field that easily and score then fumble to give them a chance to get back in the game makes you start to think there’s something out there against you. Because we deserved to win the game. Them even making it close seems kind of ridiculous.”
He’s right after a point, specifically 1:46 left in the first half when ASU, leading 14-7, took a timeout to discuss a fourth-and-1 opportunity at the Aztecs’ 11-yard line.
Edwards opted against a short field goal that could have given the Sun Devils a two-possession lead approaching halftime. Offensive coordinator Rob Likens was unconvinced ASU could run for a first down so he called for a bubble screen with a slant option that ended up with Wilkins being sacked for a four-yard loss.
“I don’t feel I did a good job with the short yardage plan,” Likens said. “It proved out throughout the whole game.”
ASU went 3-of-12 on third- and fourth-down conversions and was out-rushed by 275 yards (311-36).
“Any time that happens the way it did it’s a handful of things,” Likens said. “It’s part scheme, part physically getting beat. It was very, very disappointing. That’s not my personality (to be so pass heavy) and why I’m in hell right now. I can’t live with that. It has to be fixed immediately. It’s totally unacceptable.”
Edwards was not second-guessing himself on the fourth-and-1 decision even though an energized San Diego State team put together an 85-yard scoring drive to pull even at 14 at halftime. The Aztecs, in fact, scored 21 straight points to lead 28-14 with 4:14 left and were deep in ASU territory again before a fumble recovered by Langston Frederick with 43 seconds left breathed new life into the Sun Devils.
“Going on the road like this, we had momentum on offense, I thought we could make fourth-and-1,” Edwards said. “I’ll do it again when I deem necessary and hope our defense won’t allow them to go 90 yards and score. I’d make that decision every time. They made their fourth-and-1s, we did not.”
The Aztecs had more than a 12-minute edge in time of possession with Juwan Washington rushing for 138 yards then switching late to Chase Jasmin, who gained 112. Eno Benjamin was ASU’s rushing leader with 21.
Gonzales was on the other end of the outcome last year when Rashaad Penny dominated ASU in rushing and returns, helping Gonzales’ defense, in a 30-20 victory in Tempe.
“When you get them in third down, you’ve got to get off the field,” said Gonzales, putting blame for the late first-half turnaround on the defense instead of the fourth-and-1 offensive failure. “We didn’t. They out-physicaled us and kept the chains moving.
“They’re designed to try and run you in the ground. We did some different things to stop what they were doing. A couple of times it worked really well and we hit them in the backfield, but we don’t wrap up. They made us miss tackles, and I think we got tired. We weren’t playing with the same sense of urgency that we were last week. It was a very physical game, and they wore us down a little bit.”
On its first four offensive possessions in the second half, ASU ran a combined 12 plays for four yards. That left Wilkins beating himself up despite throwing for 341 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s on me,” Wilkins said. “I’m just going to be bluntly honest, they couldn’t cover us. Their defensive backs were garbage.
“Scoring zero points in the second half (until 1:40 remaining) is dogs–t. I’ve got to make sure we put some points on the board. It’s unacceptable for this offense and the talent we have to score zero points. Obviously I’ve got to change something.”
Particularly since the next game is at No. 12 Washington (2-1, 1-0 Pac-12), anxious to make up for a 13-7 loss at ASU last year.
“There a lot of things we have to look at,” said Edwards, who was making the same assessment after opening wins over UTSA and Michigan State. “I liked the way we fought back. But it’s hard to win when you allow people to run like that.”