Not much went right for the Arizona State Sun Devils in their 2015 Pac-12 opener Saturday night in Tempe.
ASU gave up big plays, missed dozens of tackles, struggled with their third-down defense and committed four turnovers that led to 28 points in a decisive 42-14 beating at the hands of the 19th-ranked USC Trojans.
With the loss, Todd Graham’s team falls to 2-2 on the season. Any hope for an appearance in this year’s College Football Playoff, as predicted by ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit and others, is now essentially toast. In terms of the Pac-12 South, Saturday’s game represents only one loss and Arizona State has eight games left to try and regroup.
ASU has been in this situation before.
“We took a big loss last year early in the season to UCLA and we bounced back,” senior defensive back Jordan Simone said. “We’ve just got to move forward, get better and there’s another week … just move forward. That’s the biggest thing.”
Simone is right. ASU got completely embarrassed by Brett Hundley and the Bruins, 62-27, at home last season, then went on a five-game winning streak that elevated them to a number-6 ranking in the polls.
In 2013, something similar happened, as Graham pointed out Saturday.
“We’ve just got to go to work,” he said. “I remember going over and getting my butt kicked by Stanford. It’s how you respond to this. If this is the best team we’ve had, then we’re going to respond and we’ve got to figure out a way to win next week.”
Graham is right, too. In 2013, Stanford handed the Devils a 42-28 loss in Palo Alto that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would have indicated. The Cardinal led 29-0 at the half. But that ASU team responded as well. They won eight of their next nine games, including a Pac-12 South-clinching win at UCLA.
But in both 2013 and 2014, ASU had been impressive leading up to those early-season Pac-12 losses. Leading up to the Stanford game, the Sun Devils shut out Sacramento State 55-0 in their opener, forcing four turnovers and holding the Hornets to 167 total yards. The next week, they knocked off 20th-ranked Wisconsin in a wild finish in Tempe.
Last year, ASU was 3-0 heading into the Thursday night game against UCLA, having beaten Weber State, New Mexico and Colorado by a combined score of 141-61. Those three wins didn’t come against a murderer’s row by any stretch, but at least the Sun Devils had handled their business impressively.
What positive signs can you take from the first third of the season this year? The fact that ASU hung with Texas A&M for three quarters? The fact that they needed a fourth-quarter push to dispose of an FCS foe who had never played a Pac-12 opponent? The fact that they beat New Mexico by 24 points after leading 10-0 at the half?
None of it really instills confidence, frankly.
The Sun Devils are struggling in just about every facet of the game. On offense, D.J. Foster has been a complete non-factor to this point. The senior is averaging 10 touches per game, and it appears that ASU is having trouble getting him the ball in space. Nobody has stepped up at the wide receiver position. Gary Chambers had over 100 yards receiving against USC, but didn’t catch his first pass until the third quarter when ASU was already down by 35 points.
Ball security has been an issue. ASU has fumbled 13 times already this season and lost seven, which ranks 125th in the nation. There are 127 teams in FBS.
Defensively, I already mentioned the tackling. The Sun Devils are 110th in the nation in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert over 47 percent. USC had 238 yards on third downs alone Saturday, and converted 9-of-15 opportunities despite facing an average distance of 9.6 yards.
Special teams, which has been an Achilles heel for this team for the past three years, continue to struggle. Kicker Zane Gonzalez missed two field goals against the Trojans and Gump Hayes’ ill-fated decision to run a kickoff return out of the end zone led to a fumble and a USC touchdown during a disastrous :25 span to end the first half.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the team’s confidence level.
“We should be excited about moving on to next week, because we’re a championship-caliber team in the best conference in college football,” quarterback Mike Bercovici said.
It’s good to have belief, but it’ll take more than that to salvage the season at the Rose Bowl against an undefeated UCLA team next week.