Toting its 4-4 record and toeing the line of mediocrity, the Arizona State football team is still trying to figure out how to get to the next level.
In theory, the team is merely a couple of plays away from being a 6-2 team. Reality, though, paints a completely different picture.
Saturday's last-minute 23-21 loss to Cal was just the latest hiccup for ASU, whose goal to become bowl-eligible just got a whole lot loftier.
"You almost would rather lose a game bad than lose one like that," Sun Devil coach Dennis Erickson said. "It's just a tough feeling that we're dealing with. We know we're a pretty good football team, but we just got to get over that hump."
There's no doubt that Saturday offered many positives for the Sun Devils, but the end result was still as sour as can be. Ultimately, the game won't be remembered by the team's ability to come back from an early 14-0 hole or the 56-plus minutes of good defense, it will be remembered by its final score.
"You try and win those close games and then when you come up short it just stings so much more," ASU senior quarterback Danny Sullivan said. "We're right there, eventually one of them has got to come our way."
Among the good things to come out of Saturday's game were the emergence of freshman running back Cameron Marshall and redshirt freshman cornerback Deveron Carr.
Despite starting the contest as the team's third back, Marshall showed he will likely be a cog of the team's offense over the next three-plus years.
Sophomore Ryan Bass, just days after pleading publicly for more playing time, got his wish once starter senior Dimitri Nance went out with a shoulder injury in the first quarter. But Bass never stepped on the field after fumbling near the goal line in the second quarter, opening the door for Marshall.
"Unless Dimitri is full speed, Cameron will start," Erickson said. "It's a matter of opportunities and what you do with the opportunities when you're a young player like that."
What Marshall did was cement his status as the team's most physical runner, while proving he can be a featured back in the Pac-10. He carried the ball 16 times for 71 yards as a touchdown, breaking several tackles along the way.
"He's a hard runner," Erickson said. "He's big, he's physical, he's got good speed and protected very well. Right now, I've got to see how Dimitri is. He hasn't done anything not to be the starter, but Cameron has gotten better and better all the time. [Marshall] will play. Whether he starts or whether he doesn't, he'll play quite a bit more."
While Marshall's success shouldn't be viewed as a surprise, Carr's performance was certainly unexpected. Initially, Carr only entered the game as an injury replacement for senior Pierre Singfield. But Carr played so well in his limited time, he kept playing even when Singfield was healthy enough to return.
Though Carr played primarily as a running back at nearby Chaparral high school in Scottsdale, Erickson said his plan was to play Carr at corner since day one. Understandably, Carr's transition hasn't been the smoothest, but Erickson said Carr has shown marked improvement over the last month.
"He showed no fear," Erickson said of Carr's performance on Saturday. "He came up and bumped [receivers]. He played it like it was supposed to be: with no fear and had some fun."
Still, the secondary as a whole had an awful performance on Saturday. It allowed a season-high 351 yards, including 85 from Cal quarterback Kevin Riley on the game's deciding drive.
During Monday's press conference, Erickson said the team would likely make some changes to the team's pass defense. When asked if the adjustments will be scheme-related or personnel-related, Erickson didn't specify.
"Our front seven played extremely well," Erickson said. "But we just gave up some things in the secondary that were costly to us."
Up next for the Sun Devils is a home date with USC, who is coming off of an uncharacteristic 47-20 loss at Oregon. When asked how it feels to be playing the Trojans after a beat down like that, Erickson simply said, "scary."
Though his team is about to enter the eighth week of an 11-week stretch without a bye, Erickson said isn't looking for any excuses.
"You just got to play," Erickson said. "I don't think anyone worried about byes when they were playing high school football. You just play. Just play for the fun of the game."