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September 22, 2013

Miscues unravel ASU in Pac-12 opening loss




PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Heavy rain before the game yielded to partly cloudy skies during Arizona State's first road trip of the season but the Sun Devils were washed away by No. 5 Stanford Saturday.

The torrent came early and though ASU stayed largely dry it looked water logged through a punishingly swift onslaught by the Cardinal that had it grasping for whatever it could gain purchase of in a 42-28 loss in front of a sellout crowd of 50,424 at Stanford Stadium.

Eventually it steadied itself, but not before trailing by four touchdowns in a scoreless first half effort that left little doubt ASU still has a long way to go before it is ready to consistently compete with the nation's best teams. ASU fell to 2-1 and started Pac-12 play 0-1 while Stanford is 3-0, 1-0 in the league.

Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham's laundry list of things his team needed in order to win Saturday included not turning the ball over and avoiding special teams miscues but they were unable to do either against a Stanford squad that proved Graham right when he said it doesn't beat itself and has one of the clearest identities of any Division I program.

"Give Stanford all the credit in the world," Graham said. "Obviously tell them they're a championship team. We weren't ready today. Didn't have our team ready to play, didn't have our team ready and the first half was obviously embarrassing. Our special teams, unbelievable amount of mistakes.

"We had a punt block. We got a New York punt blocked with our quarterback. We've got 12 guys on the field. We've got two kickoffs ran back to midfield. You'll have a hard time winning any games doing that. That's my responsibility and we didn't have our guys ready to play. We did not come out ready to play. That's about as bad of a disastrous first half as you can possibly have.

Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, who threw at least one interception in each of ASU's losses last season, gave the Cardinal a short field with one on the first Sun Devil possession that it converted into a touchdown quickly thereafter. ASU is 1-6 in games in which Kelly throws an interception and 9-0 when he has not.

Kelly also had one of the two punt blocks Graham referred to when a pooch attempt came low off his foot and junior right tackle Tyler Sulka allowed inside pressure by Stanford. The other blocked punt came in the end zone just before halftime when freshman Matt Haack booted the ball into the backside of senior Davon Coleman, who had been pushed backwards into the ball by Stanford's assault of the personal protectors.

Stanford also had a 30-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Kevin Hogan to senior receiver Ty Montgomery in the first half in which senior ASU defensive back Robert Nelson bit on a play fake and left Montgomery free to roam through the middle of the Sun Devil secondary.

Though Hogan completed just 11 of 17 passes for 151 yards, and the Cardinal outgained ASU on the ground 240-50, Graham said he felt it was the Sun Devils' inability to handle its assignments against the pass that doomed their defense.

"I felt like we held up really well on the run stuff," Graham said. "It was the play-action passes. We were blowing coverages that we've worked on the whole time. But I think our guys were very rattled and they did some things that we had not worked on. And you're going to have people do that and they hit us on some things."

ASU sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood was knocked from the game in the second quarter with an apparent hamstring injury that contributed to the team being unable to keep Stanford from manageable third down situations by stemming its potent rushing attack.

Senior Tyler Gaffney had 95 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries and senior Anthony Wilkerson had 68 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries as Stanford beat ASU at the point of attack on both sides of the ball throughout.

Kelly was sacked three times and pressured much more consistently than Hogan, who was sacked just once, junior Carl Bradford's first of the season. ASU senior All-American Will Sutton has been held sackless through three games after 13.5 a season ago.

The Sun Devils had a much stronger showing in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter, cutting a 39-7 deficit with three straight scoring drives to make it 39-28 with 6:18 left but the outcome was never really in any doubt, especially after Stanford recovered ASU's attempted on-side kick immediately after its last points went up on the scoreboard.

If there was a silver lining for ASU it was its continued fight late, even in the face of a 32-point deficit.

"I am proud of how our guys battled and how they came back and how they never quit," Graham said. "They had the fight in them the whole way and that showed great character."

Sophomore receiver Jaelen Strong was a bright spot for the Sun Devils on offense, with 12 catches for a game-high 168 yards and one touchown. Sophomore D.J. Foster had eight catches for 80 yards, but no other wide outs had multiple catches for an ASU squad that hasn't been able to develop enough options at the position.

Kelly finished 30 of 55 for 367 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, the last of which came on the game's final play, a Hail Mary attempt in the end zone.

Strong said following the game ASU would not only rebound, but get another crack at Stanford before the season's conclusion, but it has to beat USC next week at home to avoid an 0-2 conference start.

"If we had just came out in the first half with the same intensity we came out in the second half, it would have been a different ballgame from the beginning," Strong said. "We didn't execute our plays. We had a lot of critical errors on both sides of the ball. We had a lot of things on special teams. The upside of this is they're in the Pac-12 (North) and we'll see them again at the end of the year (in the Pac-12 title game). We'll be working hard as ever.

"You can't win the Pac-12 South without beating USC, so we have to beat USC."


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