(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
This was supposed to be an easy game against an FCS opponent that allowed Arizona State to get back on track. The Sun Devils were supposed to answer questions that were brought up in their loss to Texas A&M, and in some ways, they did en route to a 35-21 victory over the Cal Poly Mustangs, but it wasn’t without opening up other doubts about the team.
After punting on its first drive, ASU charged down the field on a nine-play, 77-yard drive capped off with a touchdown catch from senior wide receiver D.J. Foster. Foster would go on to have a much more impactful game than a week ago with 18 total touches for 134 all-purpose yards.
Redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici also picked it up after an underwhelming performance against Texas A&M, going 23-for-35, racking up 283 yards and tossing three touchdowns.
“I think we did a lot of good things offensively,” Bercovici said. “Objective is to score, kick the ball, and get the defense on that field and (force) a 3-and-out.”
Sophomore running back Demario Richard had himself a solid turnaround performance from last week with 121 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns. Richard had another touchdown that was called back when the refs decided he stepped out of bounds at the 1-yard line from the review. He rushed for the most yards since Foster rushed for 120 yards against Notre Dame last season.
For the entirety of the first quarter, the ASU defense held Cal Poly’s triple-option attack under wraps and scoreless, but an injury to junior defensive tackle Ami Latu weakened the Sun Devils inside, and the Mustangs exploited the depleted defensive front.
Cal Poly sophomore fullback Joe Protheroe routinely ran the ball between the teeth of ASU’s defense and racked up 130 yards on 28 carries. The Mustangs’ first trip to the end zone was a result of Protheroe and redshirt sophomore fullback Jared Mohamed alternating between the tackles, consistently moving the chains. The 7-play, 70-yard drive was capped by Protheroe’s 4-yard touchdown run.
“You’ve got to be disciplined to take the dive,” Graham said. “ And we could not get our ends to close to the dive. The second quarter was chaotic.”
Although ASU tallied 12 tackles for loss, the Sun Devils gave up 284 rushing yards, but Graham admitted he felt like his team gave up a lot more than that.
“I was kind of shocked when I looked at the stats and how many rushing yards,” Graham said. “They had 330 total yards offensively. I thought it was 5,000. You know what I mean?”
The Mustangs fought their way back to a level 21-21 score after they opened the second half with a eight-play drive that ended in redshirt senior quarterback Chris Brown’s first completion of the night, a 21-yard strike to redshirt sophomore tight end Reagan Enger.
“We only gave up 21 points,” redshirt senior safety Jordan Simone said. “I thought we played great defensively. How we reacted to adversity said a lot about our defense.”
Nearly everything seemed to go wrong for the Sun Devils for the better part of the second half. ASU was held to just 72 total yards on offense, Bercovici threw an interception in the red zone to kill a chance for ASU to pull ahead in the third, and the normally reliable junior kicker Zane Gonzalez missed a 28-yard chip shot in the beginning of the fourth quarter.
“Those games stress me out more than any games,” Graham said.
With seemingly no momentum, the Sun Devils pulled ahead in the fourth quarter behind standout efforts from redshirt junior tight end Kody Kohl and redshirt junior wide receiver Tim White. Kohl’s diving effort in the end zone gave ASU a seven-point lead with 7:36 remaining in the game, and then White made two consecutive explosive gains before snatching a four-yard touchdown to put a dagger in the Mustangs. Those were White’s first touches of the season due to a hand injury that kept him out of the opener.
“I love Tim,” Graham said. “What a great kid. He’s just got a great spirit.”
The injury bug bit the Sun Devils hard as well. In addition to Latu’s injury, redshirt junior running back De’Chavon Hayes, sophomore safety Armand Perry and redshirt senior offensive tackle Billy McGehee went down with injuries and did not return. Perry was seen after the game on crutches and in a walking boot. Redshirt senior linebacker Antonio Longino also took a knock in the fourth quarter but returned to action.
With as much as the Mustangs ran the ball, it’d be assumed that it was the physicality of their style of play that attributed to the Sun Devils’ various injuries, but in particular, it was the cut blocking.
“They weren’t really that physical,” Longino said. “That’s why they’re cut blocking… because they weren’t that physical, but it hurts your legs though. I can tell you that.”
Graham especially was not a fan of the blocking style from Cal Poly.
“All the cut blocking, you see how many ankles and we got about four, five guys on crutches after that game,” Graham said. “I wish they would outlaw that (cut blocking). I wish they couldn’t do it.”
ASU is on a short week as it hosts New Mexico on Friday, and as expected, Bercovici is gearing up to get his team ready for the Lobos. The Lobos are another triple-option team, so ASU will have plenty of film to absorb and digest over the next week in preparation.
“We’re pissed off to get back on that football field,” Bercovici said.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at email@example.com