CORVALLIS, Ore. — The first question to Todd Graham in the locker room following Oregon State’s 35-27 win over sixth-ranked Arizona State was “what was your message to the kids?”
His answer, “It’s my fault. I did a poor job preparing you to play. We self-destructed. Penalties. Turnovers and big plays. We played just about as awful as you can play.”
It’s hard to argue with any of those points.
Every ASU fan has a right to be frustrated. The defensive line played with so much passion against Notre Dame. They fought an excellent Figthing Irish offensive line for every inch. The defensive line, for the most part, was the reason ASU beat Notre Dame and put themselves into the conversation for the College Football Playoff. Unfortunately, it was the defensive line –again, for the most part — that made a victory very difficult against Oregon State.
Constantly, major gaps were caused by either superior players or superior effort by OSU’s offensive line. The Devils’ defense yielded 183 rushing yards — in the first quarter! It’s impossible to explain that stat without serious soul searching.
ASU has to look at three possibilities:
1) If ASU’s defensive line wants to bask in the glory of how much heart they showed in the Notre Dame game, they must be asked why it didn’t show up against Oregon State.
2) If ASU’s coaching staff enjoyed the national praise received for out-coaching Brian Kelly and Notre Dame’s offensive coaching staff, then serious questions must be answered about the lack of preparation for the trip to Corvallis while giving the same praise to Mike Riley.
3) It could be something else no one wants to talk about because it’s so simple yet hurts too much to hear. ASU isn’t a championship program at this time.
Todd Graham has said all week that this is a game that championship teams handle. ASU didn’t handle this game.
Every coach in America has different theories on how to deal with “the letdown game.” Graham had a different approach. He didn’t talk to his kids about the potential let down. He focused on the job of every player. His thought process was pretty simple. If every player takes pride in standing up to the opposition and competing for a championship, each player will beat the man opposing them the majority of the time. If each player wins the majority of the time, the unit as a whole will win a majority of the plays. Carry that theory to conclusion and it leads to a victory.
For an example of the difficulties of winning a game like this, look no further than Lawrence, Kansas. TCU is by far a better team than Kansas, yet KU almost ended the Horned Frogs’ dream of making the first college football playoff. In the end, TCU’s players and coaches handled “the letdown game.” ASU did not.
Oregon State deserves credit. Before talking about ASU’s offensive issues, understand OSU has been injured all year. The ASU game was the first game since September that Oregon State’s starting front seven was healthy. OSU also had the vast majority of their October and November games on the road. As the old saying goes, OSU was better than their record.
Despite the last paragraph, go back to what Todd Graham said: a championship team handles their business and ASU’s offense did not. Taylor Kelly was late or inaccurate on a large majority of his throws. He keyed in on Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster while rarely looking elsewhere. The offensive line created little room for a running game that averaged under 3.5 yards per carry.
It wasn’t all on the offensive players. Mike Norvell completely abandoned the running game while only down by one. With almost three minutes remaining and a full compliment of time outs, going pass happy was a terrible mistake. Re-inserting Kelly into the starting lineup was the correct decision because it re-establishes the rushing attack of Foster, Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard. Mike Bercovici is the better passing quarterback. If the running game is dismissed from the play sheet, Kelly is no longer very effective.
Despite plenty of mistakes to go around, all is not lost. After the loss to UCLA, it appeared that Arizona State would need to fight to make the Las Vegas Bowl. In an incredible turn around — inspired mostly by the defense — ASU put itself into the College Football Playoff picture. Although that dream has now left ASU’s collective consciousness due to the alarm clock that rudely awoke them in Corvallis, a repeat trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game is still a very successful year and remains a possibility.
The Sun Devils showed amazing character following the UCLA game until last Saturday night. Hopefully they’ll do it again. The problem is, it was the UCLA lesson that might put the Bruins in the championship game.
For once, and hopefully the only time in my life, I’ll type the words, “Fight On, Trojans.” All it takes is a USC win next Saturday to make the “Jael Mary” the tie-breaker in the Pac-12 South.