TEMPE, Ariz. — After two weeks of strife and an afternoon of drama, the Cougars and their embattled defense wound up with a familiar bottom line.
They gave up 38 points and lost.
Allowing a late touchdown run to another heart-searing mobile quarterback, Washington State bowed 38-34 to No. 18 Arizona State on Saturday in its first game since the stunning resignation of defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
The Cougars played with renewed energy and defensive sizzle, leading by 10 points early and seemingly gutting out a win with Blake Mazza’s 31-yard field goal with 2½ minutes left.
But Jayden Daniels’ 17-yard touchdown run with 34 seconds left conjured memories of the wrenching back-to-back WSU losses that had triggered Claeys’ flight and the promotion of Roc Bellantoni to interim DC. It was the third consecutive game the Cougs were hoodwinked by a dual-threat quarterback.
As if that weren’t enough, the Sun Devils’ 38-point total randomly echoed the Cougars’ 38-13 loss Sept. 28 at Utah in their most recent game two weeks ago.
“I thought we played extremely hard,” WSU coach Mike Leach said, speaking primarily of his defense. “We let them slip through our fingers too many times. We’re still searching for an identity and we need to trust each other to do our job. Too many guys think they have to compensate for something else.”
After Daniels’ touchdown capped a 75-yard ASU drive, Cougars quarterback Anthony Gordon displayed some heady clock management to move his unit to the Devils’ 43-yard line before he was flushed from the pocket and prevented from unloading a last-play Hail Mary.
The Cougars (3-3, 0-3 Pac-12) led 10-0 and 17-7 in the first half and twice forged go-ahead scores in the second. But they still were left with their first three-game losing streak in Pac-12 play in five years. Counting last year’s loss in the Apple Cup, the winless string is four games.
Leach acknowledged that, before the game, he banned players from social media for the rest of the season.
“We entertain too many distractions,” he said. “If I had it to do over, I’d have done it when we started (preseason) camp.”
Washington State had spent its bye week shuffling defensive personnel and trying to improve communication and efficiency. For a while, it seemed to work. The Cougs tossed a shutout in the first quarter and sacked Daniels three times in the second.
But their tendency to cross wires in pass coverage eventually reared its head as Daniels went 26-for-36 for 363 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Cougs had particular problems with Brandon Aiyuk, who made seven catches for 196 yards and three scores.
Eno Benjamin added 137 rushing yards for the Devils (5-1, 2-1), saving his best work for the second half and playing a central role in the game-winning drive.
“That’s just the heart of these guys,” Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said. “They’re very resilient.”
The Devils defensed WSU’s Air Raid offense with unconventional schemes that brought pressure from unlikely places and often employed only two defensive linemen. Gordon struggled with the pass rush at times but was 44-for-64 passing for 466 yards with three scores and no interceptions, finding Easop Winston Jr. 14 times for 118 yards.
In the second half, the Cougars overcame poor field position to mount back-to-back scoring drives of 91 and 92 yards. That trend reversed abruptly when Wazzu’s Oscar Draguicevich III boomed a 58-yarder to the 3 and, not much later, ASU’s Michael Turk shanked a 29-yarder to the Devils’ 36, setting up the second of Mazza’s two field goals.
Renard Bell caught eight passes for 71 yards for the Cougars, and Dezmon Patmon added six receptions for 97 yards.
Stars of the game
JAYDEN DANIELS of ASU passed 26-of-36 for 363 yards, no interceptions and three touchdowns to BRANDON AIYUK, who finished with seven catches for 195 yards. ENO BENJAMIN added 137 yards rushing. JACK JONES led the defenive effort with 11 tackles and five pass breakups. For the Cougars, ANTHONY GORDON was 44-for-64 passing for 466 yards, three TDs and no picks, with EASOP WINSTON JR. catching 14 passes for 118 yards and a score.
Trailing 34-31 with less than two minutes to go in the game, Daniels made repeated check-down throws to Benjamin to set up back-to-back completions to Aiyuk of 15 and 8 yards to set up his winning 18-yard run.
The Cougars play host to Colorado at 4 p.m. Saturday.