1) Alignment Issue
The first play of the third quarter was a costly alignment error by the Sun Devil defense. Wisconsin shifted their tight end and wingback from the right side to the left. This “yak” or “shake” motion changed the strength of the offensive formation. ASU never adjusted. They should have stemmed their defensive line to the right, and then rotated a LB over and slid another safety over the top. They did none of those things and were consequently outnumbered at the point of attack. Wisconsin had more blockers than ASU had defenders. The result, of course, was that Wisconsin’s running back took the fly sweep and went 80 yards untouched. This play and mistake actually occurred twice; the second time only resulted in a six-yard gain. I’m sure the ASU coaching staff prepared their team for a shift like this, but the players did not execute. Proper pre-snap alignment is critical for the defense. You can never get outnumbered at the point of attack.
2) Tackling Issue
Two huge Wisconsin runs were enabled by missed tackles. Both of those runs came in the fourth quarter. They extended drives and gave the Badgers momentum. To be fair, both missed tackles were from cornerbacks trying to bring down a powerful Wisconsin tailback that outweighed them by 40 pounds. Nevertheless, no matter who you are, you never tackle somebody with your head down while leaving your feet. Also, ASU had a chance to sack Badger QB Joel Stave on third down with about four minutes left in the game. The blitzer bounced right off of Stave, who then found a receiver for a first down. This led to Wisconsin’s last touchdown. In a big game situation, if you get a free shot at the QB, you have to bring him down.
3) Costly Miscues
The unofficial tally for ASU against Wisconsin was six dropped passes. Four of them were for first downs that would have been big gainers. The most glaring might have been the Sun Devils’ first play from scrimmage. If Rick Smith catches the ball, he potentially scores. These drops were all good passes that have to be caught.
The bad snap on the punt obviously led to a touchdown for Wisconsin. But just as important was Dom Vizzare’s decision to try to pick the ball up and do something with it. He has to know the situation and kick the ball out of the end zone to give up a safety.
Taylor Kelly’s only interception was a result of poor mechanics. He threw the ball falling away on his back foot. You can never get any strength on a pass when you do that. Kelly’s interception came immediately after a Wisconsin miscue on a punt return. It was a crucial chance to take over momentum in the game and put the Badgers away.
ASU also looked befuddled on Wisconsin’s successful fake punt in the fourth quarter. To be fair, you can never really tell what kind of fake is coming. But usually, when a fake punt or field goal works, it’s because the defense was surprised. ASU should not have let that happen.
4) Game Management
ASU fans had to be confused when Marion Grice voluntarily stepped out of bounds on his team’s last drive. His move saved Wisconsin about 35 seconds without using a timeout. On the same drive, ASU had to burn a timeout because of some confusion.
As far as the decision to pass the ball on the Sun Devils’ last possession, one could go either way. The first pass to D.J. Foster on third and 15 to pick up the first down was probably necessary. However, Kelly’s incompletion to Coyle saved Wisconsin another 35 seconds without burning a timeout. In that situation, ASU might have been wiser to follow the textbook approach.
Lastly, Arizona State’s decision to decline the holding penalty on Wisconsin’s last possession is debatable. First and 20 is a lot harder to get than second and 10. It’s probably better to play the percentages.
5) Good News
Wisconsin did not have success running the ball between the tackles as was feared. They could not establish their typical overwhelming power running game. Instead, they were forced to attack the perimeter and throw the ball. The front seven of ASU stepped up in that regard.
Most Arizona State historians would have to be proud to see the Sun Devils bounce back from adversity. There were three points in the contest where things looked bad, where the game seemed to be slipping away. But ASU responded and kept chopping wood to answer back.
Getting roped into a conversation about “who deserved to win” is a slippery slope. The reality is that both teams made great plays, and yet made some ill-advised plays and had questionable play-calling decisions. With all the rough spots in this game, the Sun Devils still won. They were finally put in positions that Sacramento State couldn’t put them in. They were tested physically and mentally — on both sides of the ball — players and coaches. It was a reality check that let ASU know it is good, but not yet great. If the Devils desire to be great, they must use this entire game as a teaching tool and move forward.