Three and Out: Arizona State's playoff hopes dashed after loss to Oregon St.
The biggest upset of the week came after most of the country had fallen asleep as Oregon State shocked No. 6 Arizona State, 35-27, on Saturday night (and Sunday morning for East Coast viewers). The result effectively ends Arizona State's hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff and jeopardizes their hopes of clinching the Pac-12 South. Here are three thoughts from Oregon State's stunning win.
1. It was a long night for Taylor Kelly
When Arizona State lost Kelly to a broken bone in his right foot in September, many thought that the Sun Devils' season would be derailed. But after a 62-27 thrashing at the hands of UCLA, backup quarterback Mike Bercovici guided ASU to a dramatic victory over USC (which he threw the game-winning Hail Mary) and a convincing 26-10 win over Stanford. While the senior leader was healing, Bercovici guided the Sun Devils back into contention and into the Pac-12 South race. It was acknowledged that once Kelly returned, the job was his. He won his first three games after he healed. But after a dismal performance in the sleety cold of Corvallis, maybe that decision was made too hastily.
It's easy (and often lazy) to pin the blame on the starting quarterback, but Kelly finished an unsightly 22-of-44 for 264 yards, two touchdowns and two costly interceptions (the second was returned for a touchdown to effectively seal the Beavers' win). Kelly couldn't cultivate a rhythm, forced too many passes into tight coverages, and underthrew open receivers at critical junctures of the game. Kelly preferred two targets throughout the game (Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster), who caught 17 of his 22 completions. The problem is that he struggled to find them late and missed them when they were open.
The recognized senior leader of the team, Kelly's status as the starter was never questioned even as he rehabilitated from his foot injury. But as Sun Devil fans rue the upset and the missed opportunity, it is difficult not to wonder if Bercovici could have won this game. And it was a game that the Sun Devils had countless opportunities to finish.
2. Arizona State's defense wasn't playoff-caliber tonight
The Sun Devils struggled without starting safety Jordan Simone, and it showed early. On a relatively simple blast play, Oregon State running back Storm Woods barged through the Sun Devils defensive line and, after evading a linebacker, found all open field because of a miscommunication within the ASU secondary. The problem reappeared a mere seven minutes later when Terron Ward broke off a 66-yard touchdown run to give Oregon State a 14-3 lead. Instead of playing tentatively without one of their best defensive players, Arizona State dialed up an aggressive defensive gameplan with a variety of different blitzes. The end result was Oregon State exploiting them for a series of big plays.
All of Oregon State's four offensive touchdowns went for 20-plus yards and three of them went for 66 yards or more. The one that put the Beavers in front for good featured wide receiver Jordan Villamin shedding his one-on-one coverage because Arizona State decided to blitz seven and leave four in coverage. Facing a surefire NFL draft pick in quarterback Sean Mannion, the Sun Devils' decision to constantly deliver pressure was admirable, but ended with the Beavers racking up 502 yards of total offense.
It looked like a trap game. Arizona State Todd Graham even emphasized that it was a trap game. And, boy, the Sun Devils fell right in.
3. Take your pick in the Pac-12 South
Now that Arizona State no longer controls its own destiny, the current conference favorite is likely UCLA, who was on a bye this week and finishes its season with two challenging games (USC and Stanford). The Bruins have looked more like the team that pundits expected them to be, but they've only delivered a handful of complete efforts this season. Arizona State faces two easier games (debatably) in Washington State and Arizona. It won't be clean, and a berth in the Pac-12 Championship is not out of the question, but the Sun Devils are no longer a playoff darling after losing to a team on a four-game losing streak.