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ASU Football: The unprecedented decision to bench Taylor Kelly

(Photo: Alli Cline/WCSN)

A week ago, head coach Todd Graham delivered what was possibly the most heart-felt and genuine postgame press conference in Arizona State football history.

Verifying whether or not that is entirely true is likely impossible, but considering the following statements Graham ushered in regards to his senior quarterback Taylor Kelly, the argument could certainly be made:

“That guy has meant so much to this program,” Graham said. “Being a quarterback is pretty tough. Probably tougher than being a head coach. That young man has been stellar. He is the one that has truly led this team. Without his leadership, we will not be where we are at today. In 27 years of coaching he is the most special person I have ever been around and I am proud that I had the chance to coach him.”

“In my career, there has only been one Taylor Kelly,” Graham concluded.

With those lofty words in mind, there was an unspoken understanding that regardless of how poorly Kelly played, regardless of how hesitant he looked, he would remain under center for the duration of 2014. Even more of an assumed guarantee was that the Sun Devils would live or die (but nevertheless remain completely loyal) by Kelly in his final regular season game as ASU’s quarterback.

Yet in the most critical situation of the season—with the Territorial Cup trophy and a trip to the Pac-12 South championship on the line—Todd Graham succumbed to the urge that had lingered and pestered him since his team’s win over Stanford: he benched Taylor Kelly and replaced him with Mike Bercovici.

“Mike (Norvell) and I made a change with Taylor because we felt like we needed a spark,” Graham said. “Being behind, we thought Mike’s ability to throw the ball would help us. So, we were trying anything. Whether that was mistake or not I don’t know. But I just knew we had to do something to try and generate some offense.”

The results were mixed for the Bercovici-led offense, as he interspersed an uneventful first drive and a critical interception with two impressive touchdown throws. His presence on the field undoubtedly provided a jolt to the Sun Devil offense and to the crowd, but was ultimately ineffective in surmounting a 14-point deficit.

Though the end result for ASU was a 42-35 loss to Arizona, the end result for Bercovici was a quarter and a half of statistics that were actually extremely close to Kelly’s stats compiled over two and a half quarters:

Kelly went 13-of-22 with 144 yards, two touchdown passes and no interceptions, while Bercovici hummed along to the tune of 123 yards on 14-of-22, with two touchdowns and an interception.

“I’m always ready on the sidelines,” Bercovici said. “I believe it was at the end of the third quarter they called my number, and all I had to do was go in there and move the chains. That’s what my expectation is and what I try to do. Whatever the circumstances is, some people have bad days. I love Taylor, I’ve been with that kid for four years. When the opportunity came for me to come in, I just needed to do my job.”

Bercovici continued to issue all the right statements:

“Like he always says, own the ball, get points on the board and we’re going to go win this game. It’s all I did. There’s no time to think about the circumstances when that type of stuff happens. I just had to go in there and get this team going in the right direction,” Bercovici said. “I tried my best, and obviously we fell short and it’s unacceptable. I’m always going got put it on my shoulders. As of right now, it’s just a bitter taste in my mouth.”

The decision to bench Kelly and roll with the seemingly-universally-beloved Bercovici will be debated incessantly over the coming weeks. After all, the Sun Devils are now eliminated from Pac-12 South championship contention and will have around a month to second-guess every move that was made at Arizona Stadium on Friday night.

So let’s begin the process now.

Graham, to his credit, owned his decision.

“I ultimately make all the decisions. It’s my responsibility [to deliver that message],” Graham said.

Yet the ultimate question is: What is the cost of this decision? What kind of message does this send to your team in its final game of the season and even going forward into 2015?

Sure, it is an inherent characteristic for coaches to pursue the win whole-heartedly, and it is difficult to fault Graham for making a move that he thought gave his team the best chance to win the game.

But it is still perplexing that he would issue what appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction a week after showering Kelly with the utmost of praise.

“I tell people all the time, our program is based on a value system, the character of our guys,” said Graham after the disappointing loss.

If the same standard holds true for the coaching staff, the value system would instruct to ride Kelly’s ability to run the read-option, his proven reputation of winning big games and his invaluable contributions to the Sun Devil program to the final whistle. Alas, that was not the case.

So perhaps emotions and loyalty are simply trivial intangibles and deserve to be shoved aside when the stakes are at their highest. Instead, the thinking goes, adapt to the situation and win at all costs, even if it means going back on your word.

But Graham said it himself in the postgame press conference: what killed his team was getting the ball to the one-inch line and failing to score after three rushing attempts, and yielding two touchdowns of 60-plus yards and two more of 20-plus yards. Any way you spin it, Taylor Kelly cannot be held accountable for these failures.

Adding to the mystifying decision, throughout the season, Graham has backed Kelly in far more bleak situations than the one that presented itself Friday night.

Try a scoreless first and third quarters against Washington in Kelly’s return from a foot injury, four punts in a row at one point during the second half against Utah, eight straight drives without a touchdown to end the game against Oregon State, and four straight punts to start the game last week against Washington State.

Kelly’s last three drives against Arizona resulted as follows: three plays for 12 yards and a touchdown at the end of the first half, eight plays for 47 yards and a missed field goal at the start of the third quarter, and six plays for 30 yards and a punt midway through the third quarter.

Obviously, the goal is to notch seven points every drive. But Kelly moved the ball with relative success and still had an abnormally short leash.

When asked who would be under center for the Sun Devils bowl game, Graham succinctly reverted back to his senior quarterback.

“Taylor will be our quarterback. We made a change of today because we felt in the circumstance, we were behind, and we needed a spark. That’s the answer to that question,” Graham said.

Graham also concluded in his postgame presser that the bowl game will be about, “sending (the seniors) out the way they need to be sent out.”

It will be an unpopular move to change courses again and trudge Kelly back out as the starting quarterback after teasing with a glimpse of Bercovici, but the decision should be commended.

It is just puzzling that the situation on Friday night—Kelly’s final Territorial Cup narrative—was not deemed worthy of this exact pay-homage-to-the-star mentality.


Follow Jacob Garcia on Twitter @Jake_M_Garcia or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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