TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State failed in its bid to play in the inaugural College Football Playoff, was unable to defend its Pac-12 South title and lost to rival Arizona for the first time under coach Todd Graham.
The disappointments could have led to another in the Sun Devils’ bowl game, just as it did last season after they lost in the Pac-12 Championship.
Instead of taking a step back, Arizona State kept the momentum going forward as a program, pulling out a 36-31 win over Duke in the Sun Bowl to finish with consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in 39 years.
“There was no way we were going to finish any other way than champions,” Graham said.
There were doubts about that at the start of the season.
Arizona State had plenty of talent coming back on offense, including three-year starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, receiver Jaelen Strong and versatile running back D.J. Foster.
The defense seemed to have more questions than answers with nine starters gone, including two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford.
After three easy wins to open the season, the Sun Devils appeared to be in trouble after Kelly broke his foot and the defense was exposed in a 62-27 loss to UCLA on Sept. 27.
Arizona State fought its way through the adversity and started rising in the standings, beating USC on a Hail Mary and knocking off nemesis Stanford a week later to start a five-game winning streak.
That put the Sun Devils right in the mix for the College Football Playoff, up to No. 6 in the rankings after crushing Notre Dame at home on Nov. 8.
But the season quickly deteriorated.
An inexplicable loss to Oregon State knocked Arizona State out of the playoff picture and a loss to Arizona two weeks later put the Pac-12 South out of reach.
The Sun Devils stumbled after a similar disappointment last season, losing to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl following a blowout loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game.
Arizona State (10-3) was in danger of losing the Sun Bowl after a late score by Duke last Saturday, but freshman Kalen Ballage had a 96-yard kickoff return to set up the winning score and cornerback Kweishi Brown closed it out with an interception in the end zone.
“I can’t tell you how tired I was at the very start of the year hearing about how many starters we lost on defense, which I understand the question,” Graham said. “For this (defense) to come from where we were, graduating the people we graduated and really be the backbone of this team down the stretch of the season, it was very fitting that we would win on an interception.”
Arizona State will lose some key players from this year’s team.
Kelly is graduating after one of the most successful careers in school history and Strong is leaving for the NFL. Tackles Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka also must be replaced, and Foster is weighing whether to return or take a shot at the NFL.
Even if Foster doesn’t return, the Sun Devils should be in good shape for next season.
Big-armed Mike Bercovici put up big numbers in the three games Kelly was out and should benefit from the playing time when his turn comes next season. Freshman Demario Richard was the MVP of the Sun Bowl after running for four touchdowns, Ballage will be back and the defense will return nine starters.
“The future is bright,” Graham said.
The 2014 season, despite the setbacks, kept the momentum moving forward.
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