PHOENIX — Todd Graham believes in momentum from one season to the next. That’s a problem for the Arizona State football coach because the kind of momentum the Sun Devils are carrying into 2016 isn’t the kind any coach wants to maintain.
Saturday’s Cactus Bowl — which carried into the first hour of Sunday — wasn’t a devastating loss in its own right. Minor bowl games are minor bowl games.
The problem for Graham is that this 43-42 loss to West Virginia at Chase Field was a tidy little microcosm of the disappointing 2015 season in a program that was supposed to be progressing. There were flashes of potential, mind-boggling mistakes and a familiar inability to finish.
When West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard connected with David Sills on a 15-yard touchdown pass with 2:19 remaining, it marked the fifth time ASU had lost a game it led in the final quarter.
“Too many mistakes,” Graham said. “You can make all the excuses you want with injuries and things like that … there were some obstacles but we’ve always won those games in the past.”
ASU fans will point to the Sun Devils’ failure to go for two points after Gary Chambers’ 58-yard TD catch with 4:56 remaining as the key mistake in the game. It was pivotal since ASU lost by one point, and it was inexcusable since the game situation was obvious and every coaching staff carries a chart letting it know which situations in which to go for one; which to go for two.
“That’s my fault,” Graham said. “We’re supposed to be going for two; we didn’t.”
In truth, there were too many Sun Devils mistakes to count. All of them were costly.
On its final scoring drive, West Virginia (8-5) converted a third-and-22 when halfback Wendell Smallwood ran 24 yards up the gut because ASU couldn’t get the proper defense called in time.
ASU had to burn a timeout before a kickoff because the Devils wanted to try an onside kick but didn’t have the proper personnel on the field.
Then there was the glaring inability of ASU’s secondary to cover the Mountaineers receivers, and the defensive play-calling’s inability to adjust to the fact that it wasn’t sustaining pressure on Howard while all those receivers were running free.
Howard said the Mountaineers knew ASU was going to come with pressure on nearly every play. He also said they knew they could exploit cornerback Kweishi Brown, which they did repeatedly.
It all added up to a 676-yard night of offense for West Virginia and 532 yards and five TD passes for Howard — all Mountaineer season highs. In its final two games, the ASU defense surrendered 1,356 yards of offense and 91 points.
One hour after the game had ended, thesundevils.com website had already automatically updated to feature the 2016 football schedule. It was as if everyone involved in the program, including the computers, wanted to turn the page on this season.
It won’t be that easy following the first losing season (6-7) since Dennis Erickson was fired in 2011.
While every season finale brings with it the loss of key seniors, ASU will face the troubling combination next season of an inexperienced offensive line, a woefully inexperienced quarterback and a coaching staff that, for the first time since Graham arrived, can’t make a strong case to its players that its program is moving forward.
“Sometimes, things don’t come easy. Sometimes, when you win 20 games, back-to-back 10-win seasons, sometimes you maybe take those things for granted,” Graham said. “Winning college football games at this level is extremely hard.
“We wanted to win the Pac-12 championship. We’ve been right on the cusp of it. We’ve won our fair share of games. We didn’t this year.”
“What you do is you use this as motivation. You go back to work, you get hungry, you work harder, you push harder, you don’t make those mistakes.”