TEMPE, Ariz. – Once he got past the oh-so-brave hecklers who fought for jeering position alongside the Sun Devil Stadium tunnel, Luke Falk reflected on missed opportunities during a solitary journey back to the visitors’ locker room after Washington State’s 52-31 loss at Arizona State.
He thought about opportunities missed but mostly those created for the other team, five of them in particular. Five turnovers, not all of them Falk’s responsibility, that swung the game, so much so that the Sun Devils won by three touchdowns despite being outgained 622 yards to 330 in total offense.
Take away those takeaways – four interceptions and a sack-fumble – and ASU’s generously announced crowd of 51,428 likely doesn’t even stick around for the postgame concert by The Fray while the Cougars continue to build on an early lead.
Five turnovers made the difference on Saturday. Four interceptions and a fumble transformed what could have been a postgame mobbing after upsetting the nation’s No. 16 into a solitary walk through the tunnel.
“I was just mad at myself,” Falk said. “I was just thinking back on some plays and I thought we had a real shot to win it but at the critical times we didn’t make the plays.”
It wasn’t even the turnovers themselves that did the Cougars in, but what followed. All five preceded Sun Devils touchdowns and on those turnover-originating drives ASU’s offense averaged 11.1 yards per play. On all other offense drives the Sun Devils managed just 17 total points and 3.7 yards per play.
“As we turn it over – it doesn’t matter where it is on the field – defensively, we feel like we’re entitled to let them score,” coach Mike Leach said. “So that’s the part that needs to end. The part that needs to end is the (lack of) ability to compete every play regardless of what happens each play.”
Some of those turnover issues might be mitigated if the Cougars could cause a few of their own. Washington State has struggled to take the ball away from opposing offenses – just three forced turnovers on the season – a fact that Leach called “a huge problem,” particularly considering that he felt the Sun Devils offense was vulnerable to some thievery several times on Saturday.
“Maybe it’s maturity but one way or the other you’ve got to find a way to take the ball away,” Leach said. “Everybody else does and that’s one thing we’ve been battling all year and battling all game. We never get the short field and we never get the easy ones.”
Unburdened by turnovers, the offense was fine to begin the game and the defense was almost flawless. The Cougars held the Sun Devils offense without a first down on six of its first seven offensive drives and sacked ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly four times in the first quarter.
The Cougars led 21-7 at one point in the second quarter and had outgained the Sun Devils 287 yards to 46. But ASU scored on its next offensive drive, and defensive lineman Marcus Hardison intercepted a short pass by Falk on the first play of WSU’s ensuing possession.
It was not one of the two interceptions Leach credited Falk for. Another interception came when a receiver was unable to shield the ball from ASU’s Kweishi Brown, who tipped the ball in the air then intercepted it.
“There were a few I thought they got a little lucky – the one that defensive lineman (Hardison) got – but just bad reads,” Falk said. “I need to do a better job. It’s hard to win a game when you turn it over that many times so that’s on me and obviously the sacks are on me as well.”
Two more interceptions Leach credited to the pressure ASU put on Falk, who was sacked six times.
“They heated you up more than most people,” Falk said. “We just needed to do a better job of putting the ball in play, and that’s on me. When they heat you up if you put the ball in the receiver’s hands there’s big money to be had and I needed to do a better job of that.”
Regardless, Hardison’s interception gave the Sun Devils the ball just 13 yards shy of WSU’s end zone and they scored in two plays, tying a game that hadn’t been close less than a minute earlier.
Washington State responded well, that time, closing the half with an offensive drive that ended in Quentin Breshears’ 27-yard field goal as time expired.
But the Cougars wouldn’t score again until there were just 24 seconds left on the game clock and most of ASU’s fans had long since headed to their cars or for prime jeering real estate alongside the stadium tunnel.
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