(Photo: Jack Harris/WCSN)
LUBBOCK, Texas – It initially looked like an unavoidable embarrassment; then seemingly appeared destined to become a classic comeback. But in the end, Arizona State couldn’t shake their losing demons in a 52-45 away defeat to Texas Tech.
Despite trailing by 18 points on three separate occasions Saturday night, the Sun Devils clawed their way back, coming demoralizingly close to stealing a much-needed win.
“Tough locker room in there, because our guys don’t like to lose,” coach Todd Graham said postgame. “That was an incredible effort…When you train them and you teach them to not cut corners, then that character comes out, and it comes out in a big way.”
In the first two quarters, the Sun Devils offense fumbled a snap, missed a field goal, and punted twice.
The second half was a different story though. ASU scored touchdowns on its first four possessions, including a 14-unanswered-point run that completely closed the gap and tied the score at 45.
After touchdown runs from Kalen Ballage (1 yard) and Frank Darby (21 yards) put ASU back within striking distance, sophomore receiving duo Kyle Williams and N’Keal Harry took over.
Late in the third quarter, Williams cut the deficit to seven by high pointing a 9-yard fade in the corner of the end zone, battling past his defender to win the ball and hold on through his tumble to the turf.
He finished the game with 7 catches for 111 yards and 2 touchdowns, embracing the role of replacing injured receiver John Humphrey.
“We had a good game plan this week, and coach believed in all the receivers, not just me,” Williams said. “(He) gave us chances to go out there and make plays…the game plan is there, and it’s our opportunity to execute and our duty to execute.”
The Sun Devils forced Texas Tech to punt on the next drive, one of the few times the team contained the Nic Shimonek-led offense.
The Red Raiders quarterback had his way with ASU’s inexperienced secondary, completing 37-of-50 passes for 543 yards, 6 touchdowns, and no turnovers.
“No matter what the defense is doing or what the situation is…the goal was to score a touchdown every drive,” Shimonek said.
For most of the game, that’s what his offense did.
But, even their gaudy numbers–615 total yards, 7.8 yards per play, and 7 trips to the end zone–weren’t enough to prevent ASU from tying the game.
Midway through the fourth quarter, and down 45-38, the Sun Devils took over at their own 38-yard line. They gave four straight handoffs to senior running back Demario Richard to pick up a first down. Wilkins and Harry then connected on a crucial 4th and 3 just past midfield, converting with a 17-yard back shoulder throw to the sideline.
“The dude is a grown man,” Wilkins said of Harry. “He’s a man amongst boys out there, and every time we have any guy one-on-one with him, my radar goes off.”
When the pair hooked up again later on the drive, Harry was left wide open running a seam route across the middle of the field, giving Wilkins an easy 21-yard throw to level the score; Wilkins’ “radar” wasn’t even needed.
“(Harry) made some really, really special plays tonight,” Wilkins said. “It was good to have him do that. I told him before the game I took a nap today and in my dream he had a big game. I told him this to his face.”
Wilkins’ offense found its footing a little too late though, and Texas Tech avoided the potential collapse with a long march of its own a couple drives later.
All night, the Red Raiders had scored quickly, but on their game-clinching possession, they needed 12 plays to go 90 yards. TTU picked up 6 first downs on the drive, and converted both their 3rd down tries: a 3rd and 8 on their own half of midfield, and a game-winning score on 3rd and goal in the final 2 minutes.
Normally a wide receiver, Dylan Cantrell lined up behind the offensive line and in motion on the play. On the snap, he took a surprise handoff from Shimonek and raced around the edge of the Sun Devils defense, crossing the goal line to put TTU back in front.
“We’ve had it installed and been working on it a couple of weeks,” Cantrell said. “Great job by the O line, and great seal block on the edge…you just gotta find a way to get in.”
Rain began to fall as ASU turned the ball over on downs on their final possession to seal the defeat. The weather was fitting; it was another gloomy night for the defeat-plagued program.
The loss drops the Sun Devils below .500 entering conference play for the first time in Graham’s tenure; it is their first time being 1-2 since 1999. In the school’s last 11 games overall, they’ve won just twice.
“Obviously it hurts,” Wilkins said. “But to come back like that, we could have won the game. Feel like I gotta do a better job getting us going early.”
For every good play ASU made to mount its comeback, there were equally devastating moments early in the night to drop them too far behind.
The Sun Devils shuffled their offensive line at Jones AT&T Stadium, trying to ignite a unit that had struggled through its first two games by moving normal left tackle Cohl Cabral to center. But late in the first quarter, he fired an errand snap that led to a lost fumble. And a Texas Tech touchdown. The Red Raiders led by 18 after the opening period.
“It’s 21-3, and we are snapping the ball all over, and it feels like the brakes are coming off,” Graham said of the sequence.
Late in the half, ASU had a special teams disaster for a second straight week. Against San Diego State last Saturday, a shanked punt led to an Aztec field goal right before halftime. In Lubbock, an unusually spread formation backfired as Texas Tech’s Ja’Deion High broke through the middle of the line untouched and blocked Michael Sleep-Dalton’s kick. Four plays later, Cantrell collected one of his two receiving touchdowns, stretching the first half score to 35-17.
Defensively, the Sun Devils were forced into making major changes after linebacker Koron Crump suffered a first quarter injury that knocked him out of the game. Graham said the long term extent of his injury is unknown.
In his place, a rotation of Renell Wren, Shannon Foreman, and Abe Thompson did well containing Texas Tech’s running game. The Red Raiders picked up just 72 yards as a team on the ground.
But, ASU’s pieced-together and inexperienced secondary was picked apart by TTU’s new starting quarterback and deep wide receiving corps.
“I’ve watched him do it now last fall when he got reps,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said of Shimonek. “You just watch him play and you watch the great supporting cast he has, and they’re in rhythm.”
Receiver Keke Coutee led TTU with 186 yards through the air on 12 catches. Cameron Batson, Derrick Willies, and Mason Reed all also had touchdown grabs.
The road doesn’t get any easier for ASU either. The Pac-12’s arguably four best team’s await the Sun Devils in their next four games. There aren’t many dates left on their schedule that look favorable.
Graham was proud of his team’s fight in Texas. But he still needs more from them to start stringing together wins.
“Our guys really felt like they were going to win that football game,” Graham said. “To come back…I’m really proud of the effort, even though we aren’t about that stuff. We are about winning football games.”