Sun Devils embarrassed by Texas Tech loss

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SAN DIEGO -- Todd Graham's face told the story.
In stark contrast to his overtly sad demeanor and tone following his team's loss in the Pac-12 title game three weeks ago, the Arizona State football coach carried himself differently after a dismal Holiday Bowl performance at Qualcomm Stadium Monday.
Graham's furrowed brow, clipped responses and a mouth that was never close to a smirk or smile made clear he was completely disgusted with ASU's 37-20 loss to Texas Tech.
The Sun Devils entered the game as a 15 point favorite and were humiliated in a dreary effort that left many in attendance, including traveling media covering ASU, shaking their heads in disbelief.
ASU ends the season 10-4 overall while Texas Tech improved to 8-5, winners for the first time in six games.
Graham gave a credit to Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury and his staff. But in the end he put blame on his staff for the atrocity of a game his team played.
"Very embarrassed for our program," Graham said. "As coaches we didn't have our guys prepared to play. We didn't see anything, really, we didn't practice, we didn't come prepared to play and that's our job as coaches...but don't take anything away from Texas Tech. They came, they lost five in a row, they came to win, they came to play and, you know, our guys, we made the most."
It was the most bizarre game of the Sun Devils' season, one in which they made mistakes in every facet of the game. After finishing one victory away from the Rose Bowl, a season-ending loss in which the Sun Devils looked underprepared, outcoached and even uninterested against an inferior opponnet puts an ugly stigma on the end of a successful season.
As much as anything, ASU lost the Holiday Bowl on third down.
Especially early in the game, the ASU offense struggle to move the chains. The Sun Devils converted only six of 19 third downs.
To make matters worse for ASU, the Red Raiders moved down the field at will, especially on third down. They converted nine of 16 third downs throughout the game.
On its first drive of the game, Texas Tech put together a 14-play, 77-yard touchdown drive. More importantly it converted on three third downs. The Red Raiders were even able to move the chains after facing a third and 20.
ASU's offense responded by going three and out.
Texas Tech returned the punt and put together a 6-play, 68-yard drive to put the team up by two scores. Again the Red Raider offense got a first down after facing a second and 25 situation. Because of a missed extra point by junior kicker Ryan Bustin on its first touchdown, Texas Tech had a 13-0 lead.
The ASU offense had only run three offensive plays at that point. And the Sun Devils would try to cut into the lead the entire game with no avail.
The struggles on third down continued for ASU offensively and defensively the entire game and hindered the Sun Devils from ever closing the gap on the Red Raiders' lead.
"We gave up more third down, second down and 15s, third down and 10s," Graham said. "Third down and two and we're ten yards off guys, that's coaching. That's an alignment error simple stuff. Don't matter who's picked [to win]."
ASU junior quarterback Taylor Kelly gave a similar explanation as his coach.
"Our guys had some mental errors and also Texas Tech, they did a great job of stemming their line, doing different things and we just got to minimize those MAs (missed assignments) and play our game and we'll execute those third downs," Kelly said.
All season long, ASU would bring pressure on third downs. Kingsburry knew that. The Texas Tech players knew that. By the middle of the second half, every person in Qualcomm Stadium knew that too.
The Texas Tech offense was prepared for the ASU pass rush. It not only neutralized the effect of ASU's blitzing, it also took advantage of it.
On nearly every third down play, ASU's defense sent an extra pass rusher, and usually two at Texas Tech freshman quarterback Davis Webb and the rest of the ASU defenders would typically be in man coverage.
So ASU would regularly send at least two more linebackers or defensive backs along with its three defensive linemen and junior Devil backer Carl Bradford every third down. With the blitz on, there would only be five defenders in coverage. If the Sun Devils rushed six, they would only have five players in coverage against four Texas Tech receivers.
The Red Raiders took advantage and hit quick game and hot route throws over the middle of the field repeatedly where ASU had vacated a defender or two.
The result of the strategy was a staggering amount of success for Texas Tech especially through the air, with its receivers winning leverage. The Red Raider offense accumulated 37 points, 24 first downs and 484 total yards of offense.
It was especially effective in the air. It was unknown who the Texas Tech starting quarterback would until the day of the game.
Webb was given the nod and did not disappoint. He finished with 28 completions for 403 passing yards and four passing touchdowns tying a Holiday Bowl record.
Despite the success the Red Raiders were having on offense, Graham stuck to his game plan. Even after pressuring nearly every third down, the ASU defense had zero sacks.
Even after what Graham called the worst half the team had played all season, the Sun Devils still had a chance to cut the lead to one seven with time ticking down in the second quarter.
With under a minute left in the second, ASU had first and goal at the Texas Tech one yard line. The Red Raiders had a 27-13 lead.
In a strange sequence of plays, Kelly was sacked on first down following a bad snap and second down when he failed to get rid of the ball with no timeouts remaining. Then on third down with around 20 seconds on the clock, the ASU offense hustled off the field rather than spiking the ball to kill the clock.
The field goal team quickly raced onto the field and set up, but was out of sync and freshman Zane Gonzalez -- who had made two longer field goals earlier in the game and ended the season tying an NCAA record with 25 made field goals by a freshman -- missed the field goal and Texas Tech went into the half with a 14 point lead.
"You can't take a sack," said Graham, who made no mention of the coaching mistake to not kill the clock on third down. "We call a timeout and tell them, 'Don't take a sack.' Then you have to go NASCAR field goal and you have to rush and we miss it."
ASU would work to get back into the game but every time it got close, it would make a mistake or Texas Tech would shut the door on a comeback.
The trend continued in the second half.
ASU came out on its first drive and scored on a 44-yard touchdown run by Kelly to cut the lead to seven.
Then on the very next kickoff, Texas Tech redshirt freshman Reginald Davis ran it back for a 90-yard touchdown.
"I really thought we would take the opening drive and go down and score and make it a 7-point game," Graham said. "We do that and they run the kick-off back for a touchdown, which is just, can't have that. We have had too much of that this year and it's very disappointing."
In the fourth quarter, ASU had one last ember of hope it could make a comeback. Its offense had the ball with just under 12 minutes left in the fourth with yet again another chance to cut the lead to one score.
ASU marched down to its own 33-yard line and Kelly completed a 43-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong. Strong put a hand on a Texas Tech defender and in the process of Strong making the catch, the defender fell to the ground. Strong was called for pass interference and the play was called back.
ASU responded and got the first down, positioning itself on the 50 yard line. Then on the next play Kelly threw a pass with the perfect amount of strength, the perfect amount of touch and the perfect amount of air underneath it to sophomore wide receiver Richard Smith.
Smith had gotten behind his receiver and caught the ball in the end zone but could not hold on to the ball as he fell to the ground.
As Smith rose from the ground empty-handed the emotion of the ASU fans in the stadium dissipated away.
ASU went on to make feeble attempts at performing a miracle, but the game was over.
The game against Texas Tech was similar to the last game the Sun Devils played against Stanford. ASU looked underprepared, got hit in the mouth early and desperately tried to comeback but with no success.
The bowl game loss coupled with the losing the Pac-12 championship is sobering for ASU. It is difficult with the jubilant memories of beating UCLA and earning the Pac-12 South champion title still lingering.
While the team definitely ended 2013 on two low notes, Graham is confident the overall season was positive for the future of the program as a whole.
"Obviously, I want our fans to be disappointed," Graham said. "Everyone should be disappointed, but we're a 10-4 football team. That's a heck of a football team. That's a heck of a season. It's not a great season, it's a good season. Pac-12 South Champions. That's one of our goals accomplished. Have we progressed forward, are we in great shape? Yes, we are."