TEMPE -- The transformation that the Arizona State football team has undergone in 2012 has been remarkable.
Sure the record looks a lot like it did just one year ago, but the team's effort and discipline have improved leaps and bounds over where they were a year ago.
But it's hard to maintain that razor-sharp focus and discipline over the course of a 12-game schedule, and it was deficiency in those two areas that led to UCLA's 45-43 win over Arizona State in front of 55,672 at Sun Devil Stadium Saturday.
There were plenty of plays that doomed the Sun Devils, but the biggest happened with 1:12 remaining in the first half. After a 50-yard punt by UCLA's Jeff Locke pinned the Sun Devils at their own four-yard line, ASU took over and with a three-point lead in their possession, many expected a conservative approach to close the half.
Those people would be wrong.
On first down, ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly took a deep drop into his own end zone, and while trying to avoid a sack and a safety, threw the ball over the middle. It was picked off by Bruins' safety Dalton Hilliard. One play later, Johnathan Franklin punched it in on a five-yard touchdown run to give UCLA a 21-17 lead and completely suck the enthusiasm out of the Tempe crowd.
The strange thing was that due to a coin-flip gaffe (yes, you read that right) by Locke, ASU would get the ball to start the second half. So, you run up the middle, punt and go into the half with a lead and a chance to build on it in the fourth quarter.
So, what happened?
"The turnover before the half, that was critical today," ASU head coach Todd Graham said following the game. "We turned the ball over with a minute and 12 seconds left on the clock. To go in at halftime -- and we're getting the ball back. That was a bad mistake."
So where did the blame lie? Was it the play call by offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, or was it the decision to try and avoid the safety and force the ball over the middle by Kelly?
"Obviously, we've got to be smart in that situation, (Kelly) told me he was trying to throw the ball away. Somebody came clean on a blitz, I haven't looked at it on the tape," Graham said. "If you take a chance in that situation, you'd probably like to have that one back.
"I wasn't very happy with that, but when the plays work, I'm happy; when the plays don't work, I'm not very happy. Obviously, that was a very costly and bad play for us today."
It was, but that play wasn't alone. Late in the first quarter, ASU had seemingly forced a UCLA punt when Brett Hundley's pass to Damien Thigpen fell incomplete. But a roughing the passer call on Junior Onyeali extended the drive and UCLA tied the game four plays later when Hundley hit Devin Fuller on a 15-yard touchdown pass.
In the second quarter, Kelly hit Kevin Ozier on what looked like an 11-yard touchdown pass. But a holding call on Brice Schwab nullified the score and ASU had to settle for a 36-yard field goal attempt by Jon Mora -- what amounted to a four-point swing.
In all, ASU committed just four penalties for 36 yards, but for the first time all year, those miscues hurt them. And with injuries to defensive standouts Will Sutton (who didn't play with a knee injury) and Onyeali (who left the game with a shoulder injury), the Sun Devils simply aren't good enough to withstand self-inflicted wounds and win football games.
Many people will focus on the game-winning drive that ended when UCLA's Ka'imi Fairbairn booted a 33-yard field goal with zeroes showing on the clock. After all, ASU just needed to stop UCLA for 93 seconds after Kelly found D.J. Foster in the end zone from seven yards out to give the Sun Devils a 43-42 lead.
But alas, this game was lost in the first half by uncharacteristically sloppy play by the Sun Devils. For the first time in 2012, we saw the team with the pitchforks on their helmets beat themselves.