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September 18, 2011

Sun Devils trip themselves up in road loss

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Beneath its brand new all white road motif, Arizona State didn't seem all that different.

If Saturday night's 17-14 road loss to Illinois is any indication, changing the way it looks could be a lot easier than fixing what it is.

A program that has failed to fire on all cylinders for any sustained period of time over the last few years -- especially on the road -- again had enough horsepower to win, but didn't, not unlike games last year at Wisconsin, at Oregon State, and at USC.

Many of the themes were all too familiar -- costly penalties, special teams miscues, sacks allowed, turnovers and red zone inefficiency, but what's most familiar is that again the Sun Devils lost a game they didn't need to and probably shouldn't have.

ASU fell to 2-1 and will likely drop from the Associated Press Top-25, while Illinois will likely gain votes after improving to 3-0.

"They're a good football team and they played very well defensively," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "But we had so many opportunities. We finally took advantage of one and then turned the ball back over to get them back in the game (early in the fourth quarter). It was very disappointing. It's two steps forward and one step back."

Conference play has yet to start for ASU, and its goal of winning the first ever Pac-12 South remains unaffected, but whether its psyche has remains to be seen.

The Sun Devils out-gained Illinois 362 to 240 yards, and after a halftime 10-7 deficit, dominated the second half everywhere but on the scoreboard. They held the Fighting Illini to 38 total yards in the second half, had 14 second half first downs to six for Illinois, but both teams could only manage a lone touchdown after the break.

After playing excellently last week on offense against Missouri only to see its defense have a poor effort that led to an overtime thriller, Saturday was the revere, with a defense that did easily enough to come away victorious if not for a mediocre effort from the offense.

"This is gut-wrenching, to be honest with you," senior receiver Gerell Robinson said. "Everyone is sitting in disbelief that it happened the way it did. We just have to go back to the drawing board and get ready for next week."

ASU moved the ball well throughout, even after putting itself in too many second-and-long and third-and-long situations, but scored on just one of three trips in the red zone and saw freshman kicker Alex Garoutte miss a centered 32-yard field goal attempt.

But its veteran offensive line play -- a group of five returning starters Erickson has called a team strength -- gave up six sacks and allowed pressure that directly led to two of junior quarterback Brock Osweiler three turnovers.

On his first of the game, ASU pushed quickly downfield with a chance to take a late first quarter lead, a blind side shot on Osweiler as he threw the football, resulting in an interception inside the red zone.

Early in the fourth quarter, with the Sun Devils leading 14-10, Osweiler was hit again from behind and gave up the football on the 41 yard line with Illinois taking a 21-14 lead it wouldn't relinquish just four plays later.

"You know, just missed opportunities," said Osweiler, who finished 25 of 45 for 256 yards with one touchdown toss and another via the ground. "I can't tell you how many times we were in scoring position and didn't come away with points. Whether that was a mistake I made, a wrong route being ran, a penalty, something like that. Mostly, just the scoring opportunities where we didn't come away with points and we needed to."


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