Fireworks displays usually mean good news for Arizona State. That was not the case in the Pac-12 championship game Saturday.
Unlike regular home games, ASU was not allowed to shoot off fireworks as the players ran on the field at the start of the game, or following its scores.
On this night, however, fireworks did not echo on the buttes of either side of Sun Devil Stadium until a prolonged burst to recognize the Cardinal after ASU's 38-14 loss to Stanford was final as ASU coach Todd Graham was shaking hands congratulating Stanford coach David Shaw and the players were singing their fight song in front of the student section as the students and others who remained chanted, "Thank you seniors."
As the embers dissolved away in the Tempe night sky and the noise rang out the longest and loudest it has all season, the ASU seniors walked back through the Pat Tillman tunnel one more time, the only time on the losing end this season. They had small pools of emotion collecting in their eyes and know their last game in a Sun Devil uniform will not be in the Rose Bowl.
ASU stands at 10-3 and will learn its bowl fate Sunday. Stanford, 11-2, will be back in the Rose Bowl for the second straight time.
After the game Graham gave credit to Stanford saying it dominated every facet of the game, but his thoughts were with the seniors.
"I feel bad I let them down," Graham said. "You know, just what a great group of men and a group that's restored our program to double-digit wins. Wanted them so bad tonight to get this win, and I felt like let them down. We didn't have very good preparation obviously."
With a chance to get back into a game it had played poorly in throughout, ASU couldn't score on back-to-black plays late in the third quarter with just three feet to go, when trailing 31-14.
On third down and one, ASU sophomore backup quarterback Michael Eubank, on his first play of the game, took the snap and was immediately met by Stanford senior linebacker Shayne Skov leaping over the line to make the tackle. Then on the next play Eubank handed the ball off to junior tight end De'Marieya Nelson and Nelson was met at the line of scrimmage by a gang of Cardinal defenders.
On the flip side, Stanford found itself in the exact same situation with just under ten minutes left in the second quarter. Except unlike ASU, Stanford converted on fourth down and one yard to go as its offensive line got enough of a push that senior running back Tyler Gaffney could score.
ASU could not even gain one yard when it needed to. Stanford did.
Those plays were the definition of the Sun Devils' performance in the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford. The Cardinal dominated the line of scrimmage the entire game to win.
"I think when you're down there, you've got to be able to make an inch," Graham said. "We had a quarterback sneak, and we should have gotten in there and we didn't. You've got to give them a lot of credit. That's all about will when you're down there. Goal line defense is all it's about. It's not about what play call or whatever. It's all about getting in the end zone or not willing yourself in there."
When ASU couldn't punch it in for a touchdown it was a microcosm for the entire game for its offense. It could not run the ball effectively and amassed 138 yards of its 331 yard total. Graham gave credit to the Stanford defensive line for winning the battle in the trenches.
"Obviously, that's something that they were better tonight, they were more physical," Graham said. "I think they really dominated. Their defensive line really dominated the run game and that hurt us. We moved the ball, we just couldn't score points."
Stanford's control of the line of scrimmage also permeated to the offensive side of the ball as well. Behind senior running back Gaffney's 138 rushing yards, Stanford was able to establish the run game early and completely dictate the pace of the game to jump out to a 28-7 lead in the first half.
And Stanford was able to score in atypical ways. Its offense usually inches down the field, running the ball in between the tackles, eating clock and Gaffney scores on a short run near the goal line.
On the fourth play of this game, Gaffney took a hand-off on a stretch run play for 69-yard touchdown. Stanford's offensive linemen blocked the play perfectly and Gaffney had an open lane in the C gap to but broke the play open for a touchdown because ASU did not have a defender in that area of the field.
Graham said Gaffney was unaccounted for because of a misalignment, blaming it on a coaching mistake.
It was the first of many big plays for Stanford, one of too many such miscues for the Sun Devils. Graham said there were eight such critical errors from his team in the first half alone, after last week telling reporters they were down to an average of about four per game.
On the next possession Stanford junior quarterback Kevin Hogan hit junior wide receiver Jordan Pratt for a 87-yard pass which set up the Cardinal's second touchdown. Then on the Cardinal's third offensive drive, junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery took an end around hand-off for a 12-yard touchdown run.
ASU senior safety Alden Darby gave credit to Stanford's players, especially Hogan, for executing those explosive plays.
"Kevin Hogan made some great passes," Darby said. "He was right on the money with the passes. He was right on the money with the passes. They looked like they were going to be overthrown, but they were right on the money. So good passes, and one step, you can't coach that."
Despite its stellar performance on both sides of the ball in the first half, Stanford was only up 28-14 at halftime.
The main reason ASU kept it close was sophomore running back D.J. Foster.
He shot through the hole for a 51-yard touchdown run on ASU's first drive of the game to tie the score. Then in the second quarter, he broke two tackles on his way to running 65-yards for a touchdown after catching a swing pass from junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, the two longest scores from scrimmage against the Cardinal all year.
Foster's second touchdown late in the second quarter gave the Sun Devils hope they could score two touchdowns in the second half and get back into the game.
Then on ASU's first play from scrimmage of the second half, Kelly threw another pass to Foster in the flat but this time he was tackled awkwardly and injured his left knee. After a couple seconds it was clear Foster was not going to get up on his own and just then the corner stadium lights shut off for the second time almost as an omen that the Sun Devil comeback was lost with the injury to Foster.
Yet, the ASU offense responded after the Foster injury. On the same drive and on the next drive, it got inside the Stanford red zone both times. And both times the Sun Devils came away with no points.
The first drive ended with a 31-missed field goal by freshman place kick Zane Gonzalez, his first in 19 attempts. He had not missed a field since the USC game back in late September.
Then the next drive stalled when ASU could not convert on fourth and one from the goal line.
After the ASU offense left 10 points on the field, the chances for a Sun Devil comeback looked bleak. When Stanford took over after ASU missed its scoring opportunities, the Cardinal showed why it is going to a BCS bowl game and trampled out any hopes for an ASU comeback.
After Gonzalez missed his field goal, Stanford put together a 10-play, 61-yard drive which resulted in a 19-yard field goal kick by Stanford senior kicker Jordan Williamson to go up three scores.
What was most impressive about that particular drive was at two points, Stanford was saddled with a second and 15 because of a holding penalty and then a second and 20 because of a sack by ASU junior linebacker Carl Bradford. Both times the Cardinal offense responded to the adversity on the very next play and was able to move the chains.
When Stanford faced a second and 15, Hogan completed a 22-yard pass to Montgomery. Later in the drive when it was stuck with a second and 20, Hogan completed a 34-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Michael Rector.
As the season comes to a close, one facet of game has surfaced as ASU's one weakness for the entire season -- special teams. The Pac-12 championship game was no exception.
Special teams blunders made it really difficult for the both offense and the defense to have good field position. The most detrimental unit was the punt team. ASU senior punter Alex Garoutte had two shanks in the second quarter that sailed out of bounds for only 16 yards and then 25 yards. Garoutte finished with an average of 33 yards per punt.
The poor punts gave Stanford excellent field position and lead to one Cardinal touchdown. Their failings on special teams, an area the Sun Devils spend so much time on in practice, was particularly bothersome to their head coach.
"Just being honest with you, it's been the most frustrating thing I've ever dealt with in coaching," Graham said. "To work so hard and be so good on offense and defense, and to play like that in the games we've played, it's been so frustrating."
As Darby and senior tight end Chris Coyle walked into the room for the press conference, it was clear by the look on their faces the emotion of the game was still wearing on them.
Darby and Coyle have been in Tempe for four years working toward the goal of one day playing in the Rose Bowl and after the game Saturday night, they will never get to experience it.
Even though they did not achieve their ultimate desire as a Sun Devil, they both wouldn't trade their time as a Sun Devil for anything else in the world.
With the lost to Stanford, it does not mean ASU will be traveling to Pasadena, Calif. In all reality, Darby and Coyle will probably play their last game in as a Sun Devil in either San Antonio, Texas, or San Diego, Calif.
Coyle knows those bowls are not as prestigious but said he thinks the season has been a success and hopes to win his last game at ASU for himself and for the players who come after him.
"Darby and I have seen the worst of teams here and the best of teams," Coyle said. "This is the best team that I've ever seen here in a long time. Like I said, we wanted to get to a Rose Bowl and we were really close, but we've got to focus on the next bowl game, whichever one we get selected for.
"I think that this year with the wins that we had this season, our success has not only been great for us, but it will be great for the future as well. Hopefully going to bring a lot of recruits in and create a dynasty here at ASU. That is definitely part of our goal, not just playing for ourselves, but also the program's future."