ASU football's response to injury-fueled adversity evokes stoicism, perseverance

The Sun Devils displayed character in the face of extraordinary misfortune

EUGENE, Ore. – Manny Wilkins. Christian Sam. Salamo Fiso. Armand Perry. Kareem Orr. Out, out, out, out, and yes – out.

There are more names of injured ASU football players on this list. All of them are important, to varying degrees.

For the Sun Devils (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) health issues across the board were evident in a 54-35 loss to Oregon Saturday afternoon. The lack of depth on the defensive end — and on the offensive line — was a tremendous hindrance.

But as the Greek Stoic Philosopher Epictetus once wrote in The Enchiridion, an ethics manual published circa AD 125:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

Stoicism – defined by Merriam-Webster as “the quality or behavior of a person who accepts what happens without complaining or showing emotion” is rare to see in its purest form. But it’s an apt way to describe the resilience of this ASU team, despite suffering their 10th straight defeat to the Ducks (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12.)

Act I: Opinion

Head coach Todd Graham is always the first to remind his players just how proud he is of their efforts, and never ceases to publicly acknowledge the Sun Devils when he feels their play is deserving of his commendation.

“I’m really proud of the guys’ heart,” Graham said. “I told them ‘I’m sick of talking about heart,’ but let me tell you, I’m very proud of – not just one side of the ball. Guys gave great heart.”

Graham said freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole (21 for 38, 302 yards and a touchdown pass) and junior running back Kalen Ballage “played with great courage,” despite Sterling-Cole’s three interceptions.

Act II: Pursuit

Who wanted the football more? Redshirt junior linebacker Marcus Ball (who posted a career-best 14 tackles Saturday) will tell you that he and redshirt junior linebacker Carlos Mendoza sure did.

It was Mendoza and sophomore defensive lineman JoJo Wicker who greeted Oregon redshirt junior running back Kani Benoit up the middle, stopping him in his tracks with 7:34 to go in the ballgame. Mendoza tore the ball loose from Benoit’s clutches, and Ball was free for a 45-yard open field sprint, as Mendoza caught up to his fellow linebacker to become his lead blocker, all the way to the Oregon 10-yard line. Two plays later, the deficit was cut to five, though Oregon would never see its 40-35 mid-fourth quarter advantage squandered further.

“It was an excellent play by Carlos,” Ball said. “We open practice with turnovers and tackling drills, and that’s something that showed up tonight. I saw the ball come out, and scooped it and tried to score.”

Act III: Desire

Eight plays into a nine-play drive, the Sun Devils were knocking on the door and trying once again to reduce Oregon’s 12-point lead to single digits.

Then, redshirt junior cornerback Tyree Robinson jumped freshman receiver N’Keal Harry’s route and sprung free for an 84-yard interception return. Harry kept with Robinson nearly step-for-step, and his hustle and desire saved ASU the embarrassment of a pick-six.

“A play that stuck out to me was N’Keal Harry chasing that guy down on the interception,” Graham said. “It spoke to the heart that our guys had.”

Act IV: Aversion

If there’s anything that anyone should aspire to be averse towards, one might put negativity in that category.

Despite not dressing for the game and watching as Sterling-Cole dazzled on some occasions and puzzled others, Wilkins made sure to let Sterling-Cole know on the sideline to “keep his head up.” Ballage, with his history of overcoming illness and injury, also was there to pick him up and console him outside the visiting locker room of Autzen Stadium.

“I’m not discouraged at all, just passionate,” Ballage said. “I just love my teammates and my coaches to death.”

Ball calmly acknowledged the faults of the defense, while Ballage and redshirt sophomore Jalen Harvey praised Sterling-Cole. The three players at ASU’s postgame media availability were rightfully somber, though never resorting to playing the blame game – each assuming total accountability.

Act V: Actions

Remember – ASU was without four starters (Sam, Fiso, Perry, and Orr) on defense, and junior running back Demario Richard did not play after wearing a green no-contact jersey all week in practice and warming up in full uniform. When redshirt senior right guard Stephon McCray went down, there were 10 ASU starters missing on both sides of the ball.

Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has had a lot to juggle since Wilkins suffered his initial injury at USC. But his masterful use of the available bench depth and remaining skill position talent and exotic play-calling squeezed out every last bit of offensive potency the Sun Devils could muster.

“I thought Coach Lindsey did phenomenal for all the adversity we had to face,” Graham said. “The three turnovers was basically the difference.”

Oregon freshman quarterback Justin Herbert matched Marcus Mariota’s school record for touchdown passes in two games with 10, four of which came against an ASU secondary that allowed 489 passing yards.

“It was very difficult not having key guys on defense,” Graham said. “We couldn't communicate. We had had a lot of errors and things like that. We tackled poorly, we played poor on defense.”

The Sun Devils may leave Eugene needing to address more adversity than they arrived with, but there’s room for admiration in how much and how quickly they have been forced to handle the circumstances that led to this team’s depletion.


Reach the reporter at smodrich@asu.edu or follow @StefanJModrich on Twitter.

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