(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
How did head coach Todd Graham and his once undefeated football team get to 5-5, clinging to the hope of a bowl game to salvage its season?
Here is a look back at the Sun Devils’ misfortune, a chronicle of the team’s rise and fall over the course of the season.
The First Blow: Christian Sam injures foot in season opener against Northern Arizona, has yet to return.
On the heels of a season in which then-sophomore linebacker Christian Sam totaled 96 tackles, the pairing of Salamo Fiso and Sam was supposed to be the anchor of the ASU front seven.
That is, until he was lost for what has been the remainder of the season with a foot injury in the Sun Devils’ season opener against NAU.
“Christian Sam is a tremendous player,” safety Marcus Ball said. “He’s just one of those guys who brings a lot of energy to the game, you know, fills up gaps, his presence is felt on the field. We’ve lost a lot of guys along the way in that aspect.”
It was the first blow for a defense, and more so a team, that has been ravaged by injury.
The ASU defense allowed 369 yards through the air, the first sign of trouble for the unit, albeit discreet.
The Bail(lage) Out: Kalen Ballage overshadows 55-point defensive lapse against Mahomes and Texas Tech with eight total touchdowns.
Running back Kalen Ballage accomplished a feat on Sept. 10 that likely won’t be seen again for a very long time.
Ballage rushed for seven touchdowns in the game and caught one, totaling eight touchdowns on his own.
He single-handedly carried the Sun Devil offense, and probably more importantly, bailed out a defense that continued to struggle against the pass.
“I don’t feel like I felt concerned. They’re a high scoring offense, they’re the number one scoring offense in the country,” senior De’Chavon Hayes said. “I’m not going to say we expected them to put up 55 points.”
Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes still leads the country with 4,247 passing yards. He totaled 540 against Arizona State.
First Sign of Trouble: Sun Devils survive Texas-San Antonio in first road test 32-28 after falling behind 28-12 in the third quarter.
After two early wins, including a win that was, at the time, impressive on the part of the Sun Devils over Texas Tech, the UTSA result was the first real sign that ASU might be in for some tough times down the road.
“In my mind, I thought we were going to beat them people by 40, I’ll be honest with you,” Hayes said regarding the UTSA Roadrunners. “It didn’t go like that, but as the season went on, we just knew we couldn’t take things for granted. We had to go out there and play every (play) like they’re the number one team in the country.”
It was an uncharacteristic road win for the Sun Devils this season. In fact, it’s been their only road win in 2016 up to this point.
Still, the team was 3-0 and seemed to defy every statistic supporting that Arizona State wasn’t as good as its undefeated record would lead one to believe.
The Beginning of the End: Manny Wilkins is injured in team’s first loss of the season to USC. Defense allows 523 total yards of offense, Sun Devil offense slowed dramatically without Wilkins.
At this point, it was the ASU offense shouldering the load and playing catch-up while the defense couldn’t stop much of anything thrown at it.
However, with the loss of Manny Wilkins in the first half against the Trojans, the ASU offense sputtered – managing just 303 yards of total offense.
Redshirt freshman Brady White then entered the game and finished with 80 yards and his first career touchdown in relief. His time under center, though, would be short lived.
USC true freshman quarterback Sam Darnold continued the trend of career days for opposing quarterbacks against the Arizona State defense, passing for 352 yards and three touchdowns.
ASU fell to the Trojans 41-20 in its first loss of the season and didn’t seem to have much of chance from the get-go without Wilkins.
When it rains, it pours: Brady White earns first career start, leads Sun Devil offense to 23-20 victory over UCLA. White is then ruled out for the season following a foot injury sustained in the third quarter.
Yes, Brady White was lost for the season with a foot injury after he looked to have settled in despite a shaky start under center.
But the ASU defense only gave up 20 points.
Granted, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen was in and out for most of the game and Bruins’ backup Mike Fafaul didn’t look ready to play. Still, the Sun Devils’ defense stepped up, wire-to-wire, for the first time all season.
The group came up with three interceptions and eliminated the Bruins’ rushing attack, holding the team’s running backs to 40 yards on 17 carries.
Chunk plays were still a problem, though – before leaving the game, Rosen amassed 400 passing yards and two touchdowns.
Chicken-related Drama: The inconsistent Sun Devil defense bounces back against the run, but can’t slow QB Falk or Cougars’ Air Raid. Wilkins again injured on team’s second drive. LB Salamo Fiso also goes down.
Whether Washington State head coach Mike Leach was correct in his allegations that Arizona State steals the signs of opposing teams, it didn’t look like ASU had much of an advantage when the Cougars traveled to Sun Devil Stadium earlier this year.
Quarterback Luke Falk was able to pick apart the still-struggling Sun Devil secondary to the tune of 398 yards and three touchdowns in the Cougars’ 37-32 win over ASU.
With the exception of a blowout loss to Colorado, the ASU run defense has proven to be stout for most of the season. That was the case in this game.
Even with the loss of Fiso, Arizona State held the Washington State running backs to only 23 yards on seven carries.
“We shut down the run game, it’s what we wanted to do, make them one dimensional,” Graham said following the loss to the Cougars. “We played well other than a few plays. We gave up a fade for a touchdown, two fades for a touchdown that we didn’t execute the proper technique.”
Still, Fiso was lost for the game and has yet to return.
“[Salamo] is another backer that got injured,” Ball said. “Salamo is a student of the game, those things are definitely some things on the field that you feel the presence gone.”
Well, Duck: Freshman QB Dillon Sterling-Cole earns first career start, Ballage does it all. Defense allows 54 points, 734 yards of total offense without Perry, Orr.
In a showdown of true freshman quarterbacks, Oregon’s Justin Herbert joined USC’s Sam Darnold as the second Pac-12 freshman quarterback to torch ASU’s already suspect secondary.
Herbert threw for 489 yards, a school record, and four touchdowns in the Ducks’ 54-35 victory.
This loss for ASU was the worst of the season for Keith Patterson’s defense from a statistical standpoint, a fact that can likely be attributed to the absence of starters Kareem Orr and Armand Perry. Both missed the game, shockingly enough, due to injury.
“Those are two other guys on this defense that make a huge difference,” Ball said. “Kareem is a tough competitor, whether (he) is on an island, whether he’s in zone. He’s really instinctive. It’s obviously one of those deals where you don’t have some of your core guys who impact ball games. I don’t want to say it lowers your chances of winning, because it doesn’t. Our coaches do a great job of preparing the next guy up.”
We’re Talking Bowl Eligibility: Wilkins returns, Sun Devils falter late against No. 15 Utah to extend losing streak to four games.
After missing the game against Oregon with a shoulder injury he sustained against Washington State, Manny Wilkins returned to action.
While the ASU defense continued to struggle, playing in a Cover 4 scheme for much of the game no less, Wilkins’ two interceptions and poor decision making in the pocket played a role in the team’s fourth straight loss.
The offensive line was a bigger liability than it had been all season, allowing 11 sacks and 22 tackles for loss.
Still, the stakes remain high for the final two games of 2016.
“We’re not done yet. We’ve still got two games left,” Graham said. “We’re playing for bowl eligibility.”
In Graham’s tenure as head coach, ASU has yet to be deemed ineligible for a postseason bowl game.
This season, the Sun Devils’ last glimpse of hope to keep that streak alive will come down to the team’s matchup with No. 7 Washington in Seattle on Saturday, followed by the Territorial Cup against Arizona on Nov. 25.