TEMPE, Ariz. — The Sun Devils are good. The Cardinal are elite. Sometimes, elite makes good look bad.
Arizona State’s Pac-12 Championship Game loss to the Stanford Cardinal can be summed up with one sequence of events.
Sure, the final score was a lopsided 38-14, but that does not really tell the whole story.
With just seconds remaining in the third quarter and ASU trailing 31-14, the Sun Devils had a chance to get back in the ball game.
Facing a third and goal from the Cardinal 1-yard line, ASU got cute and brought in backup quarterback Michael Eubank to run the offense.
Back-to-back no-yard runs from Eubank and De’Marieya Nelson ended the scoring threat and gave momentum back to the Cardinal. Five plays later, Stanford punched it into the end zone to go up 38-14. Game over.
At least San Diego is nice this time of year, right?
“The third down, you’re talking about the down at the goal line, it’s third down and an inch and we go quarterback sneak,” ASU coach Todd Graham said after the game. “I thought the linebacker was over the neutral zone, and who knows if he got in or didn’t get in, so that one happened. Then we run the power and come up short, and you’ve got to be able to make a yard, and we didn’t.”
Problem was, by bringing Eubank into the game in place of starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, Graham and his staff basically told Stanford what they were planning on doing. On the sneak, linebacker Shayne Skov timed the snap count and leapt over the line of scrimmage, landing on Eubank pretty much the moment he received the ball. Graham thought he may have deserved a penalty, but no flag was thrown.
“On fourth down, we’ve seen them in the red zone,” Skov said. “They have a tendency to run pass, like the power play or sneak, and so the second they reloaded the tight ends, we knew what was coming, and Hoff made a great play.”
The Sun Devils did themselves no favors on this night, and that sequence can belong to Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, who ended up outsmarting themselves. However, that is not the reason Arizona State lost the game.
The coaching staff felt like it needed to pull out all the stops in this one for a reason, after all, and that was because they knew it was going to take a supreme effort to knock of the No. 7 team in the country.
“A first-class program, tremendous coaching staff,” Graham said while congratulating Stanford. “They obviously deserved to win tonight. They were the better team.”
It’s really that simple.
A look at the final stats shows the Cardinal outgained the Sun Devils 517-311, with 240 of those yards coming on the ground. It was a performance not unlike the one put on the first time these teams met, when Stanford held a 240-50 edge on the ground.
Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, they did not get any bigger since then, and they needed to if they were going to knock off a team that could be a national champion if not for a couple head scratching losses.
While it will serve as no consolation to anyone in maroon and gold, this game was more of a testament to Stanford’s greatness than to anything that’s wrong with Arizona State. There most certainly is still a gap between ASU and the elite schools, and when it comes to Stanford, it’s Grand Canyon-sized.
They did, however, win 10 games, and will have a shot at number 11 in the next month. The Sun Devils played — and beat — Wisconsin, USC, Washington and Arizona, all of whom will be playing in bowl games. They also knocked off Oregon State and Washington State, and those are teams that won six games.
Arizona State played one of the nation’s toughest schedules, and nearly came out smelling like roses.
By most measurements, this will go down as a pretty successful season in Tempe. Of course, when you’re this close to making the campaign that much better, coming up short packs a substantial punch to the gut.
But it would be unwise to let what happened Saturday night erase what transpired the previous three months.
“I think that this year with the wins that we had this season, our success has not only been great for us, but it will be great for the future as well,” ASU tight end Chris Coyle said. “Hopefully going to bring a lot of recruits in and create a dynasty here at ASU. That is definitely part of our goal, not just playing for ourselves, but also for the program’s future.”