A few steps forward. A few steps back.
In the end, this game played out the way most of us expected. Two anemic offenses and one stellar defense giving us an ugly game, but also a closer game than we're used to seeing. As one would expect, the stellar defense won out. ASU was too much to handle, with Vontaze Burfict, Mike Nixon, and co. dominating this game from the opening snap. The Cougs faced one of the best rushing defenses in the country, and boy did it show - between numerous tackles for losses, broken plays and sacks, the Cougars ended up with negative 54 yards rushing. Negative 54.
The Cougars had their opportunities in the first half, but failed to capitalize. Reid Forrest's fake punt conversion for a first down brought some life to the offense, but no points following a Jeff Tuel interception. ASU had three turnovers in the first 30 minutes, but the Cougars couldn't convert even one of those into a score. Tuel struggled under pressure: the Devils had six sacks in the first half, and forced their fair share of hurries and bad decisions which led to Tuel's two picks. Marshall Lobbestael brought some brief stability to the Cougar offense in relief, but a fumble by Daniel Blackledge - on a catch that should have resulted in a first down deep in ASU territory - ended the threat. ASU sealed the half by running their two-minute offense to perfection. The result was a 13-0 halftime deficit that had to make the Cougars feel like banging their heads against a wall.
The second half saw improvement, but not immediately. ASU made a huge gain on a reverse to set up a nine yard touchdown run that left WSU back against the ropes. It took some turnovers - the Cougs forced six total - and the re-emergence of Jeff Tuel to get the Cougs back into it. Andy Mattingly's interception deep in ASU territory was the big break Wazzu needed. It set up Tuel's first TD, which wasn't exactly a thing of beauty. Intended for Daniel Blackledge - who was, at least in this writer's opinion, being interfered with - the ball came up short and into the opportunistic hands of Jared Karstetter, who made a beautiful adjustment for the six. That fired up both sides of the ball, and the Cougars were back in business down 19-7.
Then, the blunder. For most of the game, Reid Forrest had been rolling out to make rugby style kicks, like he used to do at the start of his career. Earlier in the game, though, he found a seam and was able to convert a first down that gave the Cougars some much-needed momentum. Yet again, in the second half, it looked for a moment like Forrest had a seam to the outside. But Arizona State wasn't going to make the same mistake twice. They stayed at home, and Forrest booted the ball out of desperation past the line of scrimmage. The result was a penalty that gave ASU exceptional field position. Field position that was converted into a Cameron Marshall TD run and a way-too-easy two-point conversion. 27-7.
Still, the Cougs weren't done. Although for a moment it looked like things were getting worse. A kickoff was fumbled out of bounds at the five, followed up immediately by a near-safety (and another play for a loss). That's when Wulff made a bold play call that would re-write the WSU record books. Jeff Tuel stepped back in his own end zone, and fired off a bullet to Johnny Forzani in single coverage. Forzani broke free, and the rest, literally, was history. 99 yards later Tuel had converted his first huge play as a Cougar. 27-14 after the PAT from Grasu.
But the ASU defense didn't bend from there, stuffing the Cougar offense on their remaining drives in the game. ASU's running game awoke to run out the clock, and that was it.
The Cougs had forced six turnovers, but committed four of their own. They made big plays on defense, but failed to prevent the struggling ASU quarterbacks from reaching the end zone. The Cougar offense was horrible: 181 total yards, numerous losses and penalties, but also 99 on one play and two passing touchdowns from our QB of the future. It was a game with a lot of positives, but a lot of negatives as well.
The best thing I can say is that this game definitely gives us something to build on. The defense made key plays, tackled well and only let one big play - the reverse - burn them. The offense struggled in the first half but Jeff Tuel's benching woke him up to the tune of two passing touchdowns and a play that cements his place in the WSU record book (as well as the NCAA, since you can't have a longer pass play than 99 yards).
Player of the Game: Louis Bland. It's tempting to go with Tuel, or Karstetter, but the only fireworks from the offense came in the second half. The Cougar defense came to play the whole game, and with Bland's eight tackles, one interception, one tackle for loss, one sack, and one forced fumble, he was the anchor of a revitalized squad. I understand the ASU offense is bad, but you don't force six turnovers by accident. Bland, Mattingly, Long and the defensive backfield kept both the run and pass in check for the majority of this game, with only receiver Kyle Williams burning us for big numbers. I saw numerous plays today that would have been big gains or touchdowns last year. Now, the defense is covering their gaps, running down ball carriers, and keeping things in front of them. It's a noticeable improvement, and credit Bland as the centerpiece today.
Unsung hero: Jared Karstetter. The adjustment he made to catch the third quarter touchdown was huge. Furthermore, he continues to be the security blanket for the quarterbacks that Jeshua Anderson couldn't be. Tonight, he grabbed four balls for forty-five yards and made himself an available target for Jeff Tuel throughout the game. Now if only Tuel had the pass protection to get it to him.
Play of the Game: The longest pass play in school history, Jeff Tuel to Johnny Forzani for 99 yards and a TD. I always feel better about the Paul Wulff era when I remember that it's mostly his recruits making the big plays and giving us some hope for the future.
B.S. Call of the Game: Oh, there were many. Mostly against us, but a couple against ASU too. There were many penalties in general, deserved or not. But the offensive pass interference call on Daniel Blackledge was completely nonsensical. Not to mention a momentum killer.
It was over when... Cameron Marshall ran 10 yards for an ASU touchdown with 12:25 to play; following the botched fake punt.
Stat of the Game: WSU forced six turnovers. And we still lost. Probably because of the four turnovers of our own, making for ten (!) total. Although, that -54 rushing yards stat still makes me cringe.
If you haven't voted in Nuss' poll below yet, do it. My vote is that it was a positive step in the right direction, but I'm interested to know what the rest of Coug Nation thinks. Of course you're always welcome to expand on your thoughts in the comments.
Enjoy the bye week - only six days until Midnight Mayhem.