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Saturday’s loss certainly hurts, but for ASU, this is the ground floor

TEMPE, Ariz. — After attending the postgame press conferences following Stanford’s convincing 38-14 win over Arizona State to win the Pac-12 Championship Game, I stepped into the men’s room in the press box.

“Sun Devil Soundoff,” a show hosted by my friend and colleague Craig Grialou, was piped over the speakers. A caller, who may or may not have started tailgating Wednesday morning (if you know what I mean), was on the line, passionately diagnosing what was wrong with Arizona State football. This came during a season in which ASU has won 10 games –and after a night that they hosted the conference championship game in front of nearly 70,000 fans.

“They need to fire their defensive coordinator,” the caller said.

“Well, if you fire your defensive coordinator, you’ve just fired your head coach,” Grialou retorted.

To which the caller responded, “You can’t tell me that Utah’s defense is better than ours. You can’t tell me that USC’s defense is better than ours.”

Craig, I feel for you, buddy.

The takeaway from Saturday’s game, and ASU’s first loss to Stanford this year, too, was this: The Sun Devils are not on the same level as Stanford. Period. End of story.

But that’s not a bad thing.

“The only thing I can say is what the facts are,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “The facts are three teams in the last four years have won ten-plus games: Stanford, Oregon and Alabama.

“Four years straight, 10-plus games.”

Let that sink in.

What Shaw described is an elite football program — his football program. In that four-year period, the Cardinal are 46-7. By punching their ticket to the Rose Bowl with their win Saturday, Stanford will be playing in their fourth straight BCS game.

Even Shaw couldn’t believe it.

“Four straight — it’s four, right? BCS games? Wow that’s a lot,” he said with a broad smile on his face.

In the same time frame, Arizona State has gone 31-20. Certainly nothing to sneeze at, but far from elite.

The point is, you’ve got to start somewhere. In the four years before Stanford elevated to the elite level of college football, they went 18-31 and went to one bowl game — a 31-27 loss to a five-loss Oklahoma team.

Was it disappointing that the Sun Devils failed to fix the issues that haunted them in the first half of their regular-season loss at Stanford? Without question. Was it disappointing that Arizona State squandered third-quarter opportunities with a rare missed field goal from Zane Gonzalez and two failed running attempts from Stanford’s 1-yard line? Absolutely.

But let’s look big picture here, folks. The Sun Devils won 10 games in a season where they had one of the toughest schedules in the country and played in everybody’s choice for the second-best conference in America. If they win their bowl game in San Antonio or San Diego, they’ll have a big, fat ’11’ in the win column. The last time this school had 11 wins in a season, Jake Plummer, Pat Tillman and Derrick Rodgers were still wearing the maroon and gold.

The time before that? Frank Kush was the coach and “Fast Freddie” Williams was riddling defenses in the WAC.

Yeah, it doesn’t happen often. And you want to fire the defensive coordinator because ASU got pushed around by the ridiculously experienced offensive line of an elite college football team?

It’s rare I’ll quote songs from bands I don’t really like, but it seems apropos in this instance.

“I wish you would step back from that ledge, my friend.”

Under a microscope, this one was pretty easy to figure out. Stanford is bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced at nearly every position on the field. The guys wearing headsets on the Cardinal sideline coached circles around the guys on the east sideline. I know I’m making Stanford sound invincible. They’re not. But they match up very well against the Sun Devils, whom they pounded 57-14 in two first halves this season.

In preparation for Saturday’s game, Graham acknowledged that Stanford is the defending Pac-12 Champion, and to beat them, ASU would have to “take it from them.”

But of all the words Graham said this week, the last four he spoke at the podium Saturday night should resonate the most with Arizona State fans everywhere.

“We’re just getting started.”

When the emotion of a humbling loss washes away, and hopefully it will, remember those words.