(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Despite the ups and downs in the early portion of Arizona State’s season, the Sun Devils looked like they had muscled their way back into Pac-12 South contention with 10:41 remaining to play in Salt Lake City.
ASU held an 18-14 lead, and looked to be headed toward its second top-5 road win in a three-week span.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, Utah senior running back Devontae Booker woke up for two fourth-quarter touchdowns, and the sluggish ASU offense couldn’t produce a single end zone trip to end the game. Utah scored 20 unanswered points en route to a 34-18 win.
That is ASU’s season in a nutshell.
Everything was going its way. The defense had sacked Utah’s Travis Wilson four times when he had previously been brought down just twice on the season. Booker was struggling to find any daylight, despite being one of the Pac-12’s top running back. ASU redshirt junior wide receiver Tim White broke loose for a 100-yard kickoff return–a sight for which ASU fans had forever longed.
And then it fell apart.
ASU head coach Todd Graham reiterated how proud he was of the team, and the players echoed the same mantras as always: brotherhood, 1-0 every day, etc. You know the drill.
Yet in the last 10:41 of the fourth quarter, the reality was set in stone: This is not a championship-contending team.
As tough as it is to swallow, a team that was picked by many to come out of the South, picked by some to win the Pac-12, and a sexy, dark horse to make the College Football Playoff now sits at 4-4 with only bowl eligibility attainable.
Self-imposed expectations warranted outside demands of this team. Graham said this is a program that wants to compete for titles and that this team was one that could accomplish that task.
The defense has had flashes of great (mostly against the run) and poor (USC, enough said). It leads the Pac-12 in sacks with 29 and second in the country in tackles for loss with 76, but the offense is the most perplexing part of the season.
While departed Jaelen Strong and the injured Cameron Smith were reliable weapons lost for ASU, it’s not like the team was void of talent. Senior D.J. Foster was making the move to wide receiver to best weaponize him and clear the way for the talented sophomore running back duo of Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard. Redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici looked borderline fantastic in his three starts in 2014 while Taylor Kelly was injured. Redshirt junior De’Chavon Hayes looked like an X-factor player with game-changing speed.
Yet the offense hasn’t exactly fired on all cylinders at all times. Performances against UCLA and Oregon provided strong hope. At times, Richard has looked like the best running back on the West Coast. White has easily been ASU’s most consistent receiver and big-play maker.
But the tempo and explosion just hasn’t been there for most of the season. ASU ranks ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring, seventh in total offense and 10th in red zone offense. In total plays and yards per play, the Sun Devils find themselves at mid-table.
The personnel is there, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has orchestrated explosive offenses before, so what’s the deal?
Quite simply, the team flat-out hasn’t met expectations. Sure, Norvell should’ve run the ball in ASU’s triple-overtime loss to Oregon, and maybe play-calling has been questionable at times, but there was also the great fourth-and-short call against UCLA that led to a crucial conversion.
ASU isn’t lacking the tools and components of a championship team. The players are committed to the philosophy of the program. Those same players are highly-rated and talented recruits, some of whom have proven track records from previous seasons. The coaching staff has fielded ball-hawking defenses and nearly-unstoppable offenses in the past, and at times, that same trend was evident this season. But the consistency of high-level play hasn’t been there.
In the grand scheme of things, this season could just be a blip in Graham’s tenure. For as much as the team wants to go 1-0 every day in everything they do, this could just be seen as 0-1 on the season in meeting expectations.
In Sun Devil Stadium, a quote from Dante hangs over the Tillman Tunnel and reads “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
It’s a statement normally reserved for ASU’s opponents. But maybe this season, it was better aimed at those who had ASU making noise on a national scale.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org