Cougars start slow, then pile up a big lead, before watching Sun Devils come roaring back for a tight finish

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TEMPE, Ariz. — First they struggled, then they dominated, then they somehow almost let what was once a three-score lead dwindle away.

That was the story of Washington State’s night as the Cougars withstood a fierce fourth-quarter rally by Arizona State to edge the Sun Devils 37-32 in an up-down game that never felt secure for WSU until the very end.

Still, the victory gave the Cougars their first win in Tempe since 2001 and kept WSU (5-2, 4-0 Pac-12) tied with Washington atop the Pac-12 North standings.

“One thing you can always expect from Arizona State is that no matter what, their defense is gonna play hard, they’re gonna play fast and they know how to hit and make it hurt, you know,” said senior receiver Gabe Marks, who finished with 107 yards on eight receptions and tied WSU career leader Jason Hill with 31 touchdown receptions. “We’ve been trying to prepare for that. This game always through the years, it’s takes a toll on you.”

A week after his first career game without a touchdown pass, WSU quarterback Luke Falk went 42 of 53 passing for 398 yards and three touchdowns. But he also took a season-high seven sacks, including two on back-to-back fourth-quarter plays that had him holding his left arm in discomfort.

Trainers examined Falk on the sideline, but he came back into the game to lead the Cougs on a final drive that chewed up the last 4½ minutes of game time to preserve the victory.

“Ultimately, we did a nice job of just having a gutsy win and finishing the game on that last drive the way we wanted to,” Falk said.

Still, it was quite a patchwork performance from a Cougars squad playing against a depleted Sun Devils team that was forced to use three different quarterbacks behind an offensive line missing two starters.

Manny Wilkins started for ASU and scored on a 3-yard touchdown to cap the opening drive, but he left the game in the first quarter with an undisclosed injury, and was replaced by freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole.

Sterling-Cole was mostly ineffective, finishing 7 of 16 passing for 86 yards.

“I’m extremely proud of the freshman. I thought Dillon battled and, for a freshman who hadn’t had very many reps, I thought he did a great job,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “Manny has great courage. I’ve never seen a guy with more courage than him. I’m just very proud of our team and disappointed for our fans. We should have won that game.”

To try to spark the offense, Arizona State spent most of the second half in its “sparky” formation, with center Tyler McClure direct-snapping to running backs DeMario Richard and Kalen Ballage.

Trailing 31-14 late in the third quarter, the Sun Devils embarked on a 10-play, 81-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard rushing touchdown from Richard.

The Cougs returned salvo with a 52-yard pass from Falk to Marks, but the Sun Devils wouldn’t go away.

With 11:15 left in the fourth quarter, Tim White returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown and Arizona State was successful on the two-point conversion.

Then came the disastrous offensive series that saw Falk sacked twice. Luckily for the offense, the Cougars’ defense came up with two big plays — a tackle-for-loss by Shalom Luani and a pass breakup by Marcellus Pippins to hold ASU to a 29-yard field goal. Then the WSU offense just ran out the clock.

The crazy second half eclipsed a solid span in the middle of the game when the Cougs dominated.

Down 14-3 in the second quarter against an opponent defending an undefeated record at home this year, WSU desperately needed a jolt, and they got one from the player whose Twitter handle is “Run it Back Rob.”

Free safety/kick returner Robert Taylor caught Arizona State kicker Zane Gonzalez’s kickoff, ran it out to the 10, spun out of a tackle and then did a masterful job tiptoeing down the left sideline to score on a 100-yard kickoff return.

Taylor’s touchdown was WSU’s first kickoff return for a score since 2003. The big momentum play reinvigorated the Cougars, who had uncharacteristically punted three times in the first quarter and tallied a paltry 40 yards. Sparked by Taylor’s touchdown, WSU rallied to score 31 consecutive points.

The Cougars started sluggish, and didn’t roar to life so much as cough.

“Luke, sometimes it takes him a little bit to figure out what they’re giving him and what they’re taking away, and they were blitzing so much that he wasn’t really getting a chance to see the whole defense,” Marks said. “It took him a drive and a half to really see what they were doing, and then he started taking what they were giving him.”