(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
ASU could have beaten UCLA in the Rose Bowl last Saturday night.
But missed second half chances in the red zone stymied the Sun Devils. On three occasions ASU got the ball inside the 20-yard-line – and twice inside the 10 – only to come away with three points each time.
“If you go back offensively, that was 600 yards of offense,” coach Todd Graham said during his Monday press conference. “The big thing was just not scoring touchdowns in the gold zone. The only thing we could have done differently is one, we’ve got to be more efficient in the gold zone.”
The “gold zone” is what Graham calls situations inside the opponent’s 10-yard-line. Come that close to the end zone and a touchdown becomes an expectation.
Poor execution kept ASU from crossing goal line against the Bruins in the decisive moments of the game.
“We all three times had a negative play on first or second down that just got us behind the count,” Graham said. “We rushed the ball well but we also made errors offensively that stopped our ability to score touchdowns.”
The first missed chance came early in the third quarter, on ASU’s second drive of the half. Down 27-21, the Sun Devils marched 68 yards in 7 plays, setting up a 1st-and-10 on the UCLA 11-yard-line. On first down, quarterback Manny Wilkins kept the ball for a 4-yard carry, before back-to-back runs netted the Sun Devils three more yards, half of what they needed to move the chains.
“I thought we could have taken some chances on some throws,” receivers coach Rob Likens said. “Thrown the ball up a couple times, maybe to N’Keal or somebody else. It just kind of looked like maybe we were just playing a little bit not to mess up instead of just going for it.”
On 4th-and-3, Graham elected to kick the field goal. Four points were left on the table.
After UCLA scored on the ensuing possession to stretch its lead to 10 points, the Sun Devils drove deep into Bruins territory again, setting up a 1st-and-goal from the 10. Running back Kalen Ballage carried the ball to the 4-yard-line with consecutive handoffs. On 3rd-and-goal, Wilkins dropped back to pass and targeted freshman Curtis Hodges in the back of the end zone. The throw was too low for the 6-foot-8 target however and fell incomplete. The offense trotted off the field again.
Another field goal. Another missed chance.
“In those cases you have just got to go to your best guys,” Wilkins said. “If they are jamming the box, I’ve got to do a good job of just playing football and throwing the ball up to N’Keal and letting him go make a play or throwing pick routes to Kyle (Williams).”
On ASU’s last chance inside the red zone, the Sun Devils again couldn’t punch it in. They were forced to settle for a third field goal, needing to cut a 10-point deficit to one score to keep themselves in the game.
The score played a factor in each of Graham’s decisions to send on freshman kicker Brandon Ruiz.
“(It) wound up being fourth-and-four, fourth-and-three, three and a half, it was a 10-point game in two of the three situations so it felt like I had to make it a 7-point game,” he said during his postgame press conference on Saturday night.
After two days of reflection though, he said he would have gone for “every single one of them.”
Hindsight is 20-20. But with two games left to decide ASU’s postseason fate, gaining the foresight to fix the drive-finishing issues is what the Sun Devils are focused on this week.
Richard said he doesn’t think ASU needs to change much. He credited second-half adjustments from UCLA’s defense as the cause of the missed opportunities.
According to the senior running back, the Bruins began pinching safeties and leaving linebackers on the back side of plays to clog running lanes after halftime. It knocked ASU’s offense out of rhythm.
“Most adjustments were in the red zone, in the gold zone,” Richard said. “When we were in the fringe area [or] midfield, they couldn’t stop us. (But) they made the great adjustments and that’s what happens when you’re playing an NFL style coach (Jim Mora), he is going to make adjustments.”
It was a departure from the norm for ASU, which had been successful most of this season converting close to the goal line. Even after the costly unfinished drives at the Rose Bowl, the Sun Devils still rank second in the country in red zone offense, scoring in those situations more than 97 percent of the time. They have also scored touchdowns on 26 of their 37 possession that have made it across the opponent’s 20-yard-line.
“I think we’ve been really good in the red zone all year,” Wilkins said. “I think last game, there were just a couple instances where I have just got to throw the ball up.”
Wilkins thought he might have gotten too caught up in the Xs and Os of the high-leverage situations. When he needed to trust his top targets most, he couldn’t find them once.
“I was frustrated in myself for not just playing football,” he said.
Richard doesn’t think the struggles at UCLA call for changes to the team’s red zone offensive schemes. ASU’s opponent this week, Oregon State, has been poor at stopping teams near its own goal line — the Beavers are the nation’s No. 92 ranked-team in red zone defense, keeping opponents from scoring barely 13 percent of the time.
If there was a time for the Sun Devils’ red zone offense to give an immediate response, the penultimate game of the regular season might be it.
“Now we know, when they make adjustments we gotta just put that mindset that we don’t care what adjustments you make,” Richard said. “You’re still going to have to stop us.”