TEMPE, Ariz. — Imagine it, if you will.
It’s Saturday night, late. Arizona State head coach Todd Graham sits at a large wooden table in his maroon long-sleeved zip-up embroidered with a pitchfork.
Oregon State head coach Mike Riley sits across from him in his black-and-orange beanie, hands folded quietly. On each side of either coach sits a deck of cards. The game? War.
They each flip. The cards match, so they flip three more over, one after another lined up on the table. This unfolds methodically. Both men had planned for this possibility. Then, the deciding card. It’s the fourth that matters in War.
Graham’s got a 10 on the table. It’s a good card; dependable. Solid. It wins most matchups.
Riley flips. He’s got an ace. In War, the ace is the high card. The game goes to Riley, and as he scoops his cards off the table across from a fuming Graham, he takes Graham’s deck too.
Graham never professed to think he’d pull the lower card against Oregon State. Nobody thought the Beavers would be the ones to wreck ASU’s playoff hopes.
“We thought we were prepared,” he said Monday.
The week prior, his players had said they weren’t worried about a letdown game. They knew that the little No. 6 next to their name in the college football playoff poll would mean every single team would be gunning for them.
Oregon State entered from a place the Sun Devils have been unfamiliar with for a while: rock bottom of a four-game skid. And in the same sense that the Sun Devils looked intensely prepared, almost over-prepared for a Notre Dame team that didn’t seem ready for them, Oregon State had ASU figured out. The Sun Devils never saw them coming.
The Beavers scored twice in the first quarter on touchdown runs of 78 and 66 yards. ASU had blitzed on both these plays as it almost always does. On the first, a linebacker made a critical error and running back Storm Woods shot the hole left open by the blitz and sprinted for the touchdown. Terron Ward did the same thing on Oregon State’s next possession, taking advantage of a defensive back’s mistake.
“Sometimes when you blitz, it can be feast or famine,” Riley said after the game. “ASU has been very successful blitzing, but the more people you blitz, if you get past that first line, you’ve got a chance for a big play throwing or running.
“That’s what we did twice; we made nice blocks at the hole against pressure and they didn’t have very many guys in the back end to pursue.”
Riley has been a football coach in either a collegiate of professional capacity since 1975. He’s been an NFL head coach and Oregon State’s head man two separate times in two separate decades. He’s seen it all — and he had his team ready for ASU’s mistakes. They capitalized. And without those two quick first-quarter touchdowns, Oregon State might not have won the game.
“When we give up three big touchdowns on defense, two runs that we had…it was the perfect storm,” said Graham. “And then you get frustrated.
“It wasn’t our night. We didn’t play well. We didn’t adjust well. We didn’t respond to adversity well.”
Graham said the Sun Devils themselves contributed more to the loss. And on Riley’s side, ASU’s mistakes led to a confidence it’s been apparent Oregon State hasn’t felt for four games — especially against that blitz.
“I think we did get a better feel for it as we went along. Our guys grew in confidence as we went along,” Riley said.
And then — the ace card was pulled against Graham’s 10.
On ASU’s final shot at the win, quarterback Taylor Kelly threw a pick that was returned for a 35-yard touchdown by Oregon State’s Michael Doctor.
Riley and Graham, as prepared as they thought they were, couldn’t have predicted that draw. All the careful planning; the desperate comeback attempt by ASU, the X’s and O’s could not have predicted that it would end that way.
And yet, Graham still blames himself.
“It’s my job to have the guys ready to play,” he said. “And for whatever reason, I can tell you we did everything we could to get them ready, and they weren’t ready.
“There’s a certain standard in which we do things, and as a leader I fell short on this one.”
From the coach:
“Watching him in practice is one thing, the game is another,” — Graham, regarding Taylor Kelly’s performances after being injured.