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Cougars take big step back

Arizona State wide receiver Kyle Middlebrooks picks up  yardage against Washington State.   (Matt York / Associated Press)
Arizona State wide receiver Kyle Middlebrooks picks up yardage against Washington State. (Matt York / Associated Press)

TEMPE, Ariz. – So much for building on the past three weeks.

“We’ve been taking steps forward,” said sophomore safety Tyree Toomer, “and today we just went out there and took a huge step back.”

The backsliding occurred during a 42-0 beat-down Washington State suffered at the hands of a .500 team, Arizona State, before a sparse crowd listed at 44,903 in Sun Devils Stadium.

What made Saturday’s debacle even more perplexing, it came on the heels of three decent efforts against ranked teams in consecutive weeks.

“We came out flat, there was no doubt,” quarterback Jeff Tuel said. “You look in some guys faces and it was like their dog died.”

“It was clearly our worst performance of the year,” said coach Paul Wulff, who has had two WSU teams play in Tempe against his former Cougar coach Dennis Erickson and has yet to see them score. “We didn’t do anything right.”

But the Cougars did a heck of a lot wrong in dropping to 1-8 overall, 0-6 in Pac-10 play.

They couldn’t run, gaining just 8 yards on 33 carries, which was actually an improvement on their last game here, when they had 7 yards.

“We couldn’t make any plays,” Wulff said of the non-existent running game.

They couldn’t protect Tuel. The sophomore got his 200 yards – exactly, on 17-of-26 passing – for the ninth consecutive game but was under constant pressure.

After he was sacked for the second time at the end of the third quarter while trailing 35-0, Wulff brought in Marshall Lobbestael to finish. He was sacked three more times.

“You watch their games,” Wulff said of the Devils, “they pressure the quarterback all game long. There is somebody in his face. The quarterback very seldom gets to set his feet and throw.”

And that was the case for Tuel, who threw two interceptions and, after, avoiding another rush, fluttered a long pass that was batted away to an open Marquess Wilson 45 yards down the field, missing a certain score on WSU second possession.

They couldn’t score. After misfiring on the shot with Wilson, they only got into the red zone four times and misfired on each.

The first ended with Tuel underthrowing a fade to Jared Karstetter and being picked by LeQuan Lewis in the end zone.

The second was on a fourth-quarter drive that got to the 14 when Lobbestael converted a fourth-and-1. But an illegal block penalty, a pass that lost 4 yards and a sack pushed WSU back to the 44. The Cougars punted.

The third time was after a fumble, the only turnover ASU (4-4, 2-3) had. Starting at the 12, the Cougars lost 8 yards and, with 2 minutes, 55 seconds remaining and trailing by 42, set up for a 37-yard field goal. The crowd booed. Reid Forrest bobbled the snap, had to try a pass and threw incomplete. The crowd cheered.

The game ended with WSU at the Devils’ 18 but Lobbestael’s final toss to Karstetter was too high as time expired.

They couldn’t make a stop on third down. Through three quarters, ASU converted seven times on either third or fourth down, some of them lengthy and all of them debilitating to the Cougars.

“The main thing was we weren’t getting off the field on third down,” Toomer said. “That was the key. They just kept driving for the field. They would just make a play.”

The first time the Sun Devils had the ball, they faced a third-and-4 from their 30. A short Steven Threet pass to Mike Willie picked up 3. On fourth down the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Threet kept it, but C.J. Mizell and Tyree Toomer met him and drove him back. The ball was marked at the 34, no measurement was taking and ASU had a first down.

Twelve plays later – and two other third-down conversions – the Devils were up 7-0 and the rout was on.

Threet finished 26 of 32 for 300 yards and three touchdowns. The Sun Devils finished with 493 yards of total offense.

All in all, the Cougars couldn’t make tackles, they played without fire, they just plain played lousy.

“That was our worst performance of the season,” said defensive end Kevin Kooyman.

As bad as it was, it was made even worse because no one could put a finger on why.

“I wish I could explain it, but I can’t,” Toomer said. “I’m real disappointed.”

“I don’t think anybody really knows for sure,” said punter Reid Forrest, who became WSU’s all-time punting leader in the second half. “We were flat in every aspect.”

But Wulff knows whom to blame.

“I thought we had been mentally up for four, five weeks in a row,” Wulff said. “We had been playing that way. Today we weren’t.

“It comes back on me and I, obviously, have to do a better job.”