Look, this was never going to be fun or easy, so let’s just get to it.
The Red Raiders gave up 68 points and allowed one player to score eight touchdowns in regulation. Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage ended up in the endzone on eight touches and ended up somewhere else on just seven of his touches.
At one point, the Red Raider defense allowed a touchdown on six straight drives. If it seemed like Tech couldn’t stop anything, it’s because they almost literally couldn’t. From the 2nd quarter on, and not counting the end of half possessions, the Sun Devils moved the ball 563 of a possible 647 yards, penalties included. That means that for three quarters, they racked up 87% of the yards that they possibly could have. (One hundred percent would mean they scored a touchdown on every possession.)
Since we’ve already hit on some of the numbers that should make Tech fans’ heads spin, we might as well give out some letters, too.
Defensive Line: D-
A general rule of thumb is that when a team gives up 300 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns, they got dominated in the trenches. However, for parts of this game, this actually wasn’t the case. Quarterback Manny Wilkins and running back Demario Richard combined for just 4.1 yards per carry on 40 attempts, which are numbers most fans would take any week. For whatever reason, Ballage just couldn’t be stopped.
Ondre Pipkins continues to play well inside but it’s impossible to expect him to hold up for 90 snaps. Breiden Fehoko had a below average game highlighted by his roughing the passer penalty that erased a Tech fumble recovery, their only of the night. Wilkins routinely had all day to throw because the edge rushers couldn’t get near him. By the time drives got into the red zone the line was gassed and there was nothing they could do.
The linebackers started off fairly strong, but gradually faded as the game went along. Perhaps the most frustrating thing was the refusal to challenge Ballage down the stretch. When ASU lined up in their wildcat formation, Tech had no chance. Outside linebackers were outrun to the pylon multiple times and inside guys didn’t want any part of the big back.
Open field tackling was passable early, but nobody in this group wanted any part of ball carriers later in the game. Positioning was sporadic at best and poor at times. Nobody in this group has prototypical linebacker strength or size, so positioning is doubly important. Too often they were one step out of place and too often those would-be tackles turned into attempted arm tackles, which turned into Sun Devil points.
Other than a trick play that went for a touchdown, Arizona State did nothing special in their passing game. That’s why this performance from the secondary was so disheartening. Huge cushions on the outside, penalties, and gaps in zone coverage made Wilkins look like the best quarterback on the field at times. Neither the quarterback nor his receivers were ever pressured or made uncomfortable. Like last year, the secondary was exposed by a big, physical receiver on multiple plays.
D.J. Polite-Bray was picked on all night, gave up penalties, had his best play negated by a penalty and also got hurdled. Keenon Ward made a couple good plays and several killer mistakes. The lone bright spot was Thierry Nguema, who made a few good, smart plays.
Overall Grade: F
The immediate takeaway from this game is disappointing but clear: nothing may have changed. Many people, myself definitely included, jumped the gun after SFA because the defense looked to be improved. A Power Five school is obviously a step up from an FCS opponent, but still. Maybe it was just one game and maybe the team will make adjustments. Several key players are still either young or new to the system. But it’s fair to say that the optimism surrounding this team and especially this unit took a massive hit Saturday in Tempe, AZ.