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Targeting call halts ASU’s progress as Sun Devils fail to complete comeback

Arizona State wide receiver Frank Darby reacts after an incomplete pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game against San Diego State Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

With a seven-point San Diego State lead, Aztec defender Trenton Thompson was called for targeting ASU wide receiver Frank Darby on a deep throw that, if completed, would have put the Sun Devils around the two-yard line with six seconds left in the game.

The pass was initially ruled as complete, but the referees found that the illegal hit dislodged the ball from Darby’s hands. He didn’t maintain control as he fell, and the ball hit the ground as Darby tried to keep his hands under it.

“That play is gonna haunt me. That’s gonna haunt me,” Darby said. “No doubt in my mind — I caught that pass and I came down. That was a grown man catch.”

While the targeting was upheld, what would have been a miraculous catch was overturned.

“Incomplete? Like, huh? I thought they was really going over the targeting, that’s all I was worried about,” Darby said. “They took my incomplete pass, like huh? … That hurt me. That hurt me, man. Now I feel like they was on (SDSU’s) side, man. But I can only control what I can control.”

Quarterback Manny Wilkins was left to attempt a Hail Mary from midfield, but it was batted away. ASU lost 28-21, its first of the Herm Edwards era.

For a minute, it looked as though Wilkins and Darby had connected for their third 40-plus-yard completion of the night. The two had hooked up for a 51-yard catch that led to a touchdown and then a 43-yard pass earlier.

It was a dramatic end for ASU, which had to fight back from a 28-14 deficit was just over four minutes remaining.

Up to that point, the offense had stagnated; the Sun Devils didn’t get a single first down in the third quarter, and SDSU’s dominant run game took precious minutes off the clock throughout the fourth quarter.

The game looked to be over.

But after SDSU took a two-possession lead, ASU wide receiver N’Keal Harry caught four passes for 47 yards and scored a touchdown to make the score 28-21.

Then, ASU forced a fumble to get the ball back with 43 seconds left. They had life.

The heartbeat ended with the targeting and missed Hail Mary.

The Sun Devils fought back. They had a chance. But that distracted from mistakes that plagued the team throughout.

What might have been the new ASU coaching staff’s first major poor decision cost the Sun Devils as the first half came to a close.

On a fourth-and-one on the San Diego State nine-yard line with fewer than two minutes remaining in the first half, ASU elected to go for it with a 14-7 lead.

Quarterback Manny Wilkins scrambled and was sacked. After the play, the CBS broadcast showed him looking frustrated on the sideline and appearing to shout “So dumb!”

SDSU got the ball back with 1:41 in the half and ran a two-minute drill to perfection.

Edwards told ESPN 620 AM he went for the first down for two reasons: one, his offense had gone through “a lull.” Two, the Sun Devils were going to receive in the second half.

“We were getting the ball back,” he said. “I just felt like, let’s go for fourth-and-one, let’s try to make it, continue to drive and maybe get up two scores, and then if you don’t make it, you feel like your defense can stop them. They won’t go 90 yards.”

At the half, Wilkins was 18-for-23 with 235 yards, one passing and one rushing touchdown. Wide receiver Frank Darby had 111 yards on four receptions.

But the score was tied at 14.

ASU’s offense wasn’t as prolific as Wilkins’ stat line made it look. It took most of the first quarter to gain any progress, as the team failed to get past the 50-yard line until there were fewer than three minutes left in the first quarter.

The Sun Devils performed even worse in the third quarter, failing to get a single first down.

SDSU took a 17-14 lead heading into the fourth.

Maybe it was familiarity with defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales’ 3-3-5 system; maybe SDSU just figured out how to get around a Sun Devil defense that started the game strong. Either way, the Aztecs began picking it apart beginning with the two-minute drill to end the first half.

Or, maybe it was just running back Juwan Washington.

If once is chance, twice is coincidence and third is proof, Washington showed that he can continue the stellar play of recent SDSU running backs in his third game of 2018.

He entered the game as the third-leading rusher in the NCAA, and tacked on 138 more against ASU, including a big four-yard run on fourth-and-one near the beginning of the fourth quarter.

While he ran wild, quarterback Ryan Agnew discovered his form.

He was starting in place of Christian Chapmanwho injured his knee last week.

Agnew attempted just four throws in the first quarter, completing only the first one, but flexed his muscles during the two-minute drill to end the first half.

He went 6-for-9 during the drive that culminated in a nine-yard touchdown pass.

Agnew also showed proficiency in handling pressure. Though the ASU defensive line got to him frequently, Agnew was only sacked once. He scrambled and ran 11 yards for a first down during a drive that extended the Aztecs’ lead to 20-14 in the fourth, and got rid of passes when he needed.

“He made plays outside the pocket when we had him pinned in at times, he got outside and made some nice runs with his legs as well,” Edwards said. “Every time he seemed like he ran, he made a first down.”

Washington didn’t see any snaps late; according to San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Kirk Kenney, Washington said he felt banged up near the end of the game.

Agnew began handing it off to a different back.

Chase Jasmin had 10 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown in the drive that put the Aztecs up 28-14 and ultimately iced the game with 4:14 remaining.

ASU, who had only allowed 65 rushing yards total over its first two games, gave up 311 yards to SDSU.

“Michigan State got away from the run. These guys stayed with the run all night,” Edwards said. “At the end, we say, you throw to score but you run to win, and they ran enough to win.”

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