CHAMPAIGN, Ill-- Saturday night was the first road test for No. 22 Arizona State as it faced Illinois in a hostile Memorial Stadium atmosphere. However, the crowd or environment weren't the only factors bringing the pressure onto the Sun Devils in the 17-14 Illini win.
With a veteran offensive front featuring five returning starters, better quarterback protection was expected for the night, especially with coach Dennis Erickson calling it a team strength. Through multiple blown assignments and being physically out-performed, the group allowed Illinois' speedy, blitz-heavy defense to break through and sack quarterback Brock Osweiler six times.
Before Saturday, Osweiler had only been sacked once in the team's first two games.
"They brought a lot of pressure tonight," Osweiler said. "Shoot, it seemed like almost every snap. But you know I thought the offensive line played great. They were seeing a lot of different fronts, stunts, and blitzes."
Contradictory to Osweiler's high opinion on the performance, Erickson acknowledged the lapses were costly.
"Again, that pressure obviously created some turnovers for us and fumbles that were to me the difference in the football game," Erickson said. "We didn't protect very well, it wasn't anything we didn't know was coming. There was a lot more pressure than the first two football games, and there will be a lot more pressure the next 10 football games."
Arguably one of the most pivotal plays of the game was during the fourth quarter with Illinois trailing 14-10. Osweiler was hit from behind, which forced a fumble, eventually recovered by Illini linebacker Ian Thomas . Four plays later, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase connected with A.J Jenkins for what proved to be the winning score.
"We could talk about a lot of different things but turnovers, we had some crucial turnovers," Erickson said. "The one at the end of the game when Brock got that ball knocked out when we were ahead was obviously critical."
Penalties were also a crucial aspect in the Sun Devils' downfall against Illinois Saturday night. Overall ASU had eight penalties for 91 yards, all of which came after the first quarter.
"We got three or four penalties in the second quarter that were interesting," Erickson said. "We ended up at second and third and long (too often), and you don't want to be in that situation."
Two steps forward and one step back is how Erickson described the play by the Sun Devils.
A 15-yard personal foul by senior offensive lineman Mike Marcisz for illegal hands to the face on second and 7 at the Illinois 30 yard line pushed ASU out of scoring range late in a third quarter drive that resulted in a punt.
Five penalties on the ASU offensive line contributed to its problems, three of which came from junior guard Andrew Sampson, who also had trouble with penalties last week.
With a smaller margin for error on the road, ASU's offense couldn't overcome its miscues and the trend is familiar. Through three games ASU is 11th in the conference in penalties and penalty yards per game. Last year it finished last in the Pac-10 in those categories.
It was a much improved effort from the defensive side of the ball this week for the Sun Devils in comparison to last week's play against Missouri. Perhaps seeing an opportunity on film study, Illinois started out the game running a lot of quarterback-designed plays that forced some adjustments.
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had 62 rushing yards on 10 carries before intermission -- with 98 total on the ground for the team at that point -- but finished with 18 carries for 67 yards, a total of eight carries for just seven yards in the second half.
"Yeah, there was a little bit more of that then we were (initially) expecting," senior linebacker Colin Parker said. "After our Missouri game it got brought up they would go to that a little but if we were stuffing their running backs. There were a couple different looks that we needed to get a feel for and it just took a minute."
Senior Eddie Elder led the night overall with ten tackles, repeatedly coming up and making plays against the run from his safety position. Osahon Irabor and Vontaze Burfict both finished with nine stops, with Burfict making numerous impressive tackles in open area of the field.
Tackling, on the whole was much improved, and despite seeing its offense turn the ball over three times, the Sun Devils yielded only 17 points and 240 yards of offense.
"Our secondary started getting confidence and you saw Deveron (Carr) step up out there, Irabor, I thought Vontaze (Burfict) played real well." Erickson said.
Sophomore pass rush specialist Junior Onyeali was lost on the first play of the game with a knee sprain and the Sun Devils rotated just three defensive ends for most of the night, with sophomore Davon Coleman replacing Onyali and playing most of the defensive snaps.
Coleman played well, finishing with seven tackles and playing a key role in keeping Scheelhaase contained throughout the second half.
Redshirt freshman kicker Alex Garoutte missed a 35-yard field goal in the first half that proved to be a huge miss given the closeness of the game late.
It was the second week in a row Garoutte has had a costly miss after a 42-yard opportunity against Missouri last weekend contributed to game eventually being pushed to overtime.
On the season, Garoutte is 3 of 5, including a 2 of 2 performance in the opener against UC-Davis.