TEMPE — A year ago, the press conferences in Tempe had a much different feel under former head coach Herm Edwards. When asked about penalties or noteworthy problems during games, Edwards would frequently deflect blame, saying he wasn’t the one on the field, nor was he playing in the game.
Fast forward to the current tenure under interim coach Shaun Aguano. Following ASU’s 50-36 loss to No. 9 UCLA on Saturday night, Aguano entered the Sun Devil media room visibly upset. As quarterback Trenton Bourguet, defensive back Chris Edmonds and running back Xazavian Valladay addressed the media and answered questions, Aguano looked on from the side with a sense of pride.
After the players were finished speaking with the media, there was an incredibly telling moment in the series of events to follow. Each of the players got up from their chairs and stopped to give Aguano a hug as they left the room; A moment signaling the strength of “Ohana” among the team, and a mutual feeling of respect.
As Aguano sat down at the table, he immediately took the blame for the outcome of the game.
“I take all the blame for not preparing us defensively and offensively for this game,” Aguano said. “It’s not on them, it’s on me. I want to make sure that everybody understands that, and we’ll get it fixed.”
It was a bold moment, and one signaling a change in the direction and intention of ASU each and every time the Devils take the field. Instead of just, “playing to win the game,” the Devils now seem to be playing with purpose. Instead of playing it safe, they’re relying on the confidence within themselves to get the job done in high-pressure situations to win the game.
The new mentality was put on display in the second half when the Sun Devils attempted to go for two early in the third quarter.
“When you read the analytics books, it’s recommended that if you’re going to be aggressive and you score and get the two points, then a touchdown wins the game,” Aguano said. “I don’t want to be in a situation where we kick it and we’re 7-7 and then we have to go for two.”
He continued, “I want to make sure if I don’t get it, I’m down by eight I’m going to have to go for two anyways. So I want to make sure from an aggressive standpoint, and I always tell our kids we’re going to be aggressive for the win, that was me going for the win. So now we’re down six, if we score, we win the football game. That was my chain of thought.”
While Aguano’s play-calling was refreshing for fans, it still wasn’t enough for the Sun Devils to pull off an upset against UCLA. It was, however, successful in leading ASU 36 points; The most they’ve put up against a top-15 opponent all season.
It also was Bourguet’s first opportunity to start in a game of such caliber. Under pressure, he still managed to complete 38 of 49 pass attempts for 349 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
“I thought they did a good job trying to bring some pressure and get me out of my game,” Bourguet said. “A couple times they got some good licks on me, but I’ve just got to stay in the pocket and trust my reads.”
At the end of the first quarter, ASU was trailing 14-10 with possession of the ball. However, the Devils quickly were forced to punt early in the second quarter, marking the start of the frustration to come.
After forcing UCLA to punt the ball for the first time in the game, Bourguet was sacked for a loss of 10 yards on the first snap of the drive. Looking to generate some momentum with a big play on a second and long, Bourguet was unable to complete his pass to target Bryan Thompson. Bourguet was able to find Valladay on the following play for a gain of nine, but unfortunately the Sun Devils would be punting the ball away once again.
“I put [Trenton] in the situation to get hit because I didn’t take care of the efficiency on first down, so I made that mistake as a play-caller,” Aguano said.
Defense got scorched on UCLA’s following drive, with Bruins QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson leaping over defenders as if it was effortless.
“[Thompson-Robinson] is though,” Aguano said. “He gets going and he’s one of the best athletes out there. We didn’t fit run-fits. We didn’t wrap-up like we should. It’s absolutely inexcusable.”
As the Bruins continued gashing the Devils, they were able to take a 21-10 lead with 9:43 left before the half.
The Bruin Defense was relentless in their attack once again, forcing the Sun Devils to punt the ball back with a large amount of time left to play.
“I missed some easy throws that I wish I could take back,” Bourguet said. “They came out with a couple more blitzes than we anticipated, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to play better and not allow them to separate that much… I’m definitely going to learn from it.”
“I didn’t think I did a good job for three series in the second quarter to stay with them,” Aguano said. “And then we played catch-up the whole time. I’m happy how the kids played, but that was my fault that we didn’t take care of those three series.”
Despite ASU’s defense bringing the pressure, sacking Thompson-Robinson twice, it wasn’t enough to slow down the Bruins’ offense. Leaving just 33 seconds left before halftime, UCLA was able to make it 28-10, bringing many Sun Devil fans to throw in the towel and call it a night.
“The fans showed up tonight, and we didn’t take care of it in the first half,” Aguano said. “We were able to get back in the game in the end, but I wanted to thank them, too, in trying to be there for us. We were hopeful the outcome would be a little different but our kids played their hearts out.”
Initially, things seemed frustrating for the Sun Devils after coming back onto the field when they once again faced a quick three-and-out. In what would have usually been a crushing blow for the Sun Devils, UCLA was able to extend the lead to 35-10 on the following possession.
However, Aguano has made it clear this team is not the same team it was at the start of the year, and it was obvious in their continuous fight throughout the rest of the game.
“This whole week, Coach Aguano stressed on us that we’re going to play until the last whistle,” Bourguet said. “Whether we’re up, whether we’re down. I think we just proved that to everybody, we’re not gonna give up.”
Continuing to battle, Bourguet was able to find Elijah Badger, who reeled in a one-handed catch for a touchdown on the following drive. Attempting to go for two, the Sun Devils were able to convert, cutting the Bruins’ lead to 35-18 with 6:15 left in the third quarter.
ASU’s defense still struggled to stop the run game, allowing Kazmeir Allen to take the ball 75 yards on the opening snap of UCLA’s next drive.
“The defense as a whole, we’ve just got to be better,” Edmonds said. “I mean, 400 yards on the ground, we just can’t allow that to happen. We pride ourselves as a defense on being fast and physical, so we just can’t let that happen.”
While Arizona State continued fighting into the fourth quarter, there was a brief moment of opportunity for the Sun Devils to force an extreme change of events. Trailing 42-28, a fumble by UCLA recovered by the Sun Devils gave them excellent field position while also preventing the Bruins from scoring or running any more time off the clock.
Capitalizing on their field position, Valladay was able to punch it in from the one before the Devils once again went for two and were able to convert.
Trailing by only six, a defensive stop would allow ASU’s offense the opportunity to come back out and win the game. While the worn down defense put up their best fight, UCLA was able to overpower them to make the final score of the game 50-36.
“It was very exciting getting everybody back into the game, you know, we were one stop away from taking a lead on that,” Bourguet said. “We just need to execute a little bit better earlier in the game so it doesn’t have to come to that point, but at the end of the day I was proud of how everybody competed until the last whistle.”
“We need to play better in that interior,” Aguano said. “They’re a pretty good line, they got on us and we didn’t separate. We didn’t strike and separate, we didn’t wrap-up all of the time, but it’s tough when somebody runs on you for 400 yards and you’re trying to play catch-up the whole time, but it’s my fault we had to play catch-up.”
Now sitting at 3-6, the Sun Devils know they must win out to qualify to a bowl game. With remaining games on the road at Washington State, at home against Oregon State and the rivalry game against Arizona on the road, it’s going to be a challenge.
“We’re going to play as hard as we can,” Aguano said. “One thing you’re going to learn about this football team is that we’re going to play until we can’t play no more… So these next three games, we’re going to play hard. We understand we have to win out to get to a bowl game.”
“We’re very confident that we can win out,” Edmonds said. “We trust each other in the locker room. We’re going to get back tomorrow, lock-in, watch tape and see what we can fix.”
Aguano isn’t looking to waste any time between now and the end of the season, as he knows he needs to do as much preparation and studying as he can to be ready for these games.
“We need to go back, and I’ll get back into my office and turn on the film and watch that before I go home and try to figure out what needs to be done before next week,” Aguano said. “We’re going to be ready. When I say ready, making sure the coaches are preparing the kids to be successful, and I don’t think we did a good job of that tonight.”
Most importantly, though, Aguano discussed how much he was looking forward to this week’s Sunday dinner and the team spending time together as an “Ohana,” coming at a perfect time as it’s the conclusion of Family Weekend.
“That is the most important part,” Aguano said about the Ohana culture among the team. “When we met right after [the game], I got them all together and made sure we put a hand on each other. That’s the part about the families, and when it’s hard times, how can we back each other up and not point fingers? I told them that I love them, I’m going to take care of it, and I take the blame.”
He continued, “Those guys understand when it’s hard times, we’ve got to stick together even more, and that’s a huge emphasis… We’re going to come back Sunday and do the same thing. We’re going to have our family dinner on Sunday, and it’s a tough one because we lost, but that’s where more and more family makes it even better.”
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @LittWithBritt