The opportunities were there for the taking for the Sun Devils. Whether it was in the form of a toe-tapping two-point conversion that wasn’t, the team’s inability to convert on third downs, or each of the three drives where they settled for field goals instead of pushing for touchdowns, the Sun Devils had more than their fair share of chances to pull out the victory in Eugene.
Yet in the end, it was simply too much to overcome, as ASU ultimately fell 31-29 Saturday night to the Oregon Ducks in a loss that eliminated the team from Pac-12 championship contention.
“They just outplayed us today,” said redshirt senior quarterback Manny Wilkins. “We made a lot of mistakes, put ourselves in a lot of long third down situations. Credit to them. They had a good game plan and played really well, but they gave us some gifts, and we didn’t capitalize. I didn’t capitalize personally.”
With 3:45 left in the fourth quarter, ASU regained possession on the Oregon 45-yard line after a miraculous interception from freshman safety Cam Phillips. Victory seemed very much in reach, as the Sun Devils were only down two, had one timeout at their disposal, and had scored touchdowns on their previous two drives.
Yet in a matter of seconds, any chances for late-game heroics fluttered away when Wilkins was hit from behind and coughed the ball up into the waiting arms of Oregon junior defensive lineman Gus Cumberlander. The turnover, coupled with an offsides penalty a few plays later, sealed the victory for the Ducks in their final home game of the season.
“I thought with three minutes left, we actually were going to go down and get ourselves in a position to either score a touchdown or milk the clock down and take off as much time as we could and get in position," head coach Herm Edwards said. "If we have to win it with a field goal, we could win it with a field goal. If not, we’ll score and not leave any time on the clock. But it didn’t work out for us.”
A major source of ASU’s offensive futility was their inefficiency on third down. The Sun Devils were 3-17 on third down, by far their worst success rate of the season, and in the third quarter alone, they had three separate drives ending in three-and-outs.
The offense never really got into any sort of rhythm and often looked discombobulated and confused. Add in one of the country’s loudest stadiums and temperatures that flirted down into the 30's, and all of this culminated into one of the worst offensive showings from ASU this season.
“It seemed like every time we took a step forward, we took one back,” said offensive coordinator Rob Likens. “Bottom line, we made way too many mistakes on offense.”
On the other side of the ball, it was a tale of two halves for the Sun Devils defense. In the first half, Oregon was able to drive down the field with ease as their running backs consistently gouged ASU for big gains.
The Oregon offense picked up 364 total yards in the first half, including a whopping 249 through the air, as they scored four total touchdowns to put them up double digits.
The second half though was a completely different story, as the ASU defense only allowed 85 total yards and three points as they desperately fought to keep the Sun Devils Pac-12 hopes alive.
“It’s gut-wrenching,” said defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales. “We had a chance to play for the championship. We made the stop to get them the ball with 3:00 minutes left. We caused four turnovers tonight including one on special teams. It stabs you in the heart. I feel bad for the kids, because we just didn’t make enough plays in the end.”
ASU finishes its season next week against the the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson. At one point, the game coul have decided the winner of the Pac-12 south, but with both teams losing on Saturday, it now only counts for a final seeding and bragging rights.
This season was one defined by the plethora of missed opportunities, and Saturday’s loss fits perfectly with the narrative.
“We’re all going to have to live with this for the rest of our lives,” Likens said. “We blew an opportunity that comes around maybe once in a lifetime.”