(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
STANFORD, Calif. — Arizona State junior quarterback Manny Wilkins visibly limped in and out of the postgame interview room, the result of a play near the end of the first half of his team’s 34-24 loss at Stanford. After that play, the offense never looked the same.
Asked about it, Wilkins only said he got “rolled up” by a Stanford defender.
“It just felt awkward,” said Wilkins, who was slow to get up and eventually hobbled back to the rest of the offense after the play.
He never actually admitted he was limping when a reporter asked about it. He slyly, but politely brushed off the question.
“Eh, I’m all good,” said Wilkins, who then mentioned he just had a “run it off” a bit.
Much like Wilkins, the Sun Devil offense limped to the finish line. After scoring 17 points in the first half, ASU (2-3, 1-1 Pac-12) totaled just one touchdown on 141 yards of offense the rest of the way. The unit’s sluggish second half wasn’t enough to keep up with Stanford running back Bryce Love, who set a school-record with 301 rushing yards and added three touchdowns.
It didn’t help that Wilkins, the offense’s most consistent player to this point, had an off day. He was noticeably hobbled and completed just 15 of 24 passes for 181 yards. It was also the first game of the season where he didn’t throw a touchdown pass.
“I didn’t put us in a position to win this football game,” said Wilkins, who implied his health didn’t play a factor in his performance or the team’s playcalling. “I played poorly. I played terribly.”
He also threw two interceptions. The first was tipped at the line of scrimmage and became a jump ball, difficult to pin as Wilkins’ fault. It ended his streak of 192 pass attempts without an interception, a school record.
The second was underthrown and absolutely his mistake. It came with ASU trailing by 14 points in the third quarter and desperately needing a drive. And speaking of missed opportunities, Wilkins took a third-down sack that pushed ASU out of field goal range after Stanford scored on its opening drive in the first quarter.
“Errors, there weren’t a whole bunch of them,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “The two turnovers was what wound up costing us and the sack right there cost us three points. All those little things kind of add up.”
Before Wilkins was rolled up, ASU thrived on offense with a similar boldness in playcalling that it showed against Oregon last week. The Sun Devils established a running game, used play-fakes and even ran a flea-flicker.
Also, three different Sun Devils took direct snaps out of the Sparky formation — senior running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, and sophomore receiver N’Keal Harry. Richard scored a touchdown on one of them and Harry threw a touchdown to junior tight end Ceejhay French-Love on another.
“It was a little bit tough to see what was going on because of the linemen, but in the end I didn’t want to throw the ball away,” said Harry, who noted he’d never thrown a touchdown pass before Saturday. “I saw him get wide open, and Ceejhay did a great job and did what coach told him to do, and we just executed it.”
The Sun Devils rushed for 214 yards on Saturday. Richard gained 84 and in addition to his Sparky touchdown, had ASU’s lone second-half score. Ballage added 60 yards on nine carries. Sophomore receiver Kyle Williams, an emerging threat for ASU, carried twice for 65 yards.
Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, much of the play-making flare ended in the first half. Stanford kicked a field goal at the end of the half and led by a touchdown at the break.
“Coming into halftime I was like, ‘Man, we’re going to get the ball, and tie this thing up,’” Graham said.
Instead, ASU’s second-half drives went like this: Punt, punt, interception, punt, touchdown, missed field goal. The group had just 34 yards on 13 plays in the third quarter. That wasn’t going to get it done with Love running free on the other side.
To ASU’s defense’s credit, Graham said the unit improved at corralling Love in the second half. He still broke runs, but there were more neutral plays.
“We hung (the defense) out to dry a couple times,” Harry said of the offense.
The Sun Devils totaled 409 yards of offense. They averaged 5.8 yards per play and converted 8 of 15 third downs.
The numbers looked good, the scoreboard didn’t.
“We should’ve scored a heck of a lot more than 24 points,” Graham said.
Wilkins is still completing 65.9 percent of his passes this season. He’s thrown for 1,452 yards and eight touchdowns, and has run for two more. After being thrust into a quarterback battle for the second consecutive fall, he’s made everyone’s favorite storyline a moot point with his impressively consistent play.
But Saturday wasn’t his best effort, and he said so himself many times. And not once did he mention the play that left him limping. The one that started the offense’s downward spiral.
“My number one job is to score points and we left a lot of points on the board tonight and that falls in my hands,” Wilkins said.