The first play of a game isn’t necessarily indicative of the outcome, but on Saturday night, a 52-yard completion from USC redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler to sophomore receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster on the Trojans’ first play from scrimmage served as a guiding premonition of how Arizona State’s night would soon unravel.
Week after week, ASU head coach Todd Graham, a man who has guided the Sun Devils to back-to-back 10 win seasons, has called the 2015 ASU football team the best he’s ever coached. And after a 42-14 shellacking at the hands of a Pac-12 divisional foe, Graham had the opportunity to change course, and shift the narrative of the Sun Devils’ actual potential.
But at his postgame press conference, Graham balked at the opportunity, instead affirming his belief, and calling a team lacking any real semblance of cohesion through one-third of the season his most talented unit yet.
“No, I think this is the best team we've had overall, we're just not playing that way,” Graham said. “We're not -- that's my opinion. I mean, I work with them every day.”
Graham is fiercely committed to building his team up and vocalizing a championship mentality, but through the first month of the season, ASU hasn’t come close to backing up its coach’s superlatives.
As ASU exited the field at halftime trailing 35-0, the Sun Devils had a chance to reflect on the self-inflicted wounds they had incurred just moments before.
Down 21-0 with less than a minute remaining in the first half, ASU held the ball on the USC one-yard line with a chance to cut the deficit to two scores and capitalize on its best scoring opportunity of the night. And suddenly, the Sun Devils lost control.
Redshirt junior and backup center Stephon McCray offered redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici a high snap, and Bercovici failed to complete a handoff to sophomore running back Demario Richard at the mesh point. The ball fell to the surface, and Trojans’ safety Chris Hawkins corralled it and scampered 94 yards to the end zone.
The turnover was a knife to the Sun Devils’ side, and on the ensuing kickoff, the Trojans twisted the knife. Redshirt junior returner De'Chavon Hayes caught the kickoff moving backward in the end zone, and after hesitating, Hayes made a terribly ill-advised decision to bring the ball out in lieu of settling for a touchback.
Hayes was stripped at the four-yard line, and USC fell on the football. Fittingly, the Trojans waited until third down to score their fifth touchdown of the game, and seconds later, the “best” team Graham has coached found itself in the locker room, embarrassed on its home turf.
“At the end of the day we can't turn the ball over going in on the one-yard line,” Graham said. “I think that was, obviously, the play of the game. Then you run the ball out. I mean, we haven't done stuff like that. That stuff's unacceptable, and we as coaches can't have that stuff happening.”
The sequence of events leading into halftime was uncharacteristic of any team Graham has coached at ASU, even for a 2015 squad that has consistently underwhelmed. So what accounts for the massive disconnect between the top-end talent Graham insists ASU possesses and the flummoxing, sometimes mind-boggling mistakes taking place on the field?
A number of factors contributed to ASU’s demise on Saturday, but according to Graham, nothing was more prevalent than the Sun Devils’ failure to execute exactly what they’ve been practicing.
“Obviously, we've got some new people,” Graham said. “A lot of new receivers, new people in there and we're dropping the ball and turning the ball over. So we've got to get a cap on that. We start practice every day with taking care of the football and doing all those things.”
A season after finishing with a sterling plus-14 turnover margin, ASU has developed crippling ball security issues on offense, and hasn’t been able to generate the type of pressure, and the amount of takeaways, that became hallmarks of the program over the last three seasons.
Against Cal Poly and New Mexico, ASU’s inefficiencies surfaced, but were somewhat disguised by its advantages in talent. But against USC, the issues manifested throughout the game, and were magnified on a practically unprecedented scale during Graham’s tenure because of such a lopsided margin.
The Trojans exposed ASU in a way the Sun Devils never expected, and as the game began to unravel, ASU’s players did little to calm the storm. USC seized the game on third down, capitalizing on 10-of-16 third down chances as ASU’s defensive personnel struggled with locking down assignments against top-tier talent.
Redshirt senior safety Jordan Simone alluded to a failure by ASU’s defensive backs to practice what their coaches preach, and coupled with a defensive front that couldn’t generate pressure, it made for a long night for the Sun Devils’ defense.
“No I mean, we just got to do what we’re coached to do, they get big plays when we don’t do that,” Simone said. “A lot of it is on me, I have to do better, I got to be a better leader out there and we just got to cover them better. They beat us on plays and that can’t happen in the secondary.”
Still, after suffering their worst beat down since a 62-27 loss to UCLA at home last season, Simone somehow remained upbeat about the Sun Devils’ outlook for the season. After the game, the captain echoed Graham’s sentiments about ASU’s talent level, just as he has after the Sun Devils’ first three contests.
“I feel great my confidence in our team will never change,” Simone said. “They were the better team tonight and we took a big loss last year early in the season against UCLA and we bounced back. We just got to move forward and get better.”
Instead of analyzing or acknowledging ASU’s troubles, Simone chose to take the “Speaking Victory” route after the game, following in the footsteps of his head coach. Under Graham, ASU has embraced a culture where speaking about success is synonymous with attaining it, and the Sun Devils remain relentlessly committed to those ideals, even in the face of a defeat as ugly as Saturday’s.
While it would be foolish to criticize Graham or ASU’s players for holding their heads high and keeping season-long goals in sight, it's clear there is some self-inflicted damange done through use of superlatives as a crutch.
ASU built a reputation as an attacking style defense and an up-tempo offense over the last three years and earned a sense of national respect for its ascension under Graham, with back-to-back 10-win seasons the last two years. Because of that, the college football world had every reason to take Graham at his word when he first began insisting the 2015 Sun Devils would be the best version yet.
Failing to live up to expectations is understandable, but failing to live up to expectations that have been self-built to unprecedended heights is going not going to go over well with a fan base desparate to see its team finish a 10-win type season with a Pac-12 title. After a 2-1 start, ASU’s “best team” mantra was waning to those following the program from an external standpoint, and by halftime on Saturday, it had vanished.
Perhaps there’s a bit of irony in the manner in which ASU lost. After spending all of that time generating expectations from the inside out, it was internal struggles that doomed the Sun Devils against the Trojans.
The Sun Devils committed four turnovers, missed countless tackles and were severely outcoached in third down situations that ended up providing USC with more than enough momentum to blow past an outmatched foe. All of that added up, and right before halftime, disaster ensued and ASU self-destructed to the point where it reached a hole that may take multiple weeks to climb out of.
“The game was extremely competitive early,” Graham said. “Obviously, we were moving the ball. I mean, we were moving the ball and doing some good things, so I felt like we were going to be okay. If we could have gotten that touch, it would have made it a two-score game. That was obviously a kick in the gut, followed by another kick in the gut. So we're self-destructing when you're turning the football over like that.”
Self-destruction complete, ASU must now pick up and move on. The Sun Devils have done it before, working their way back from early season losses in 2013 and 2014 to finish with 10 wins. But now, more than ever, there’s a sense of doubt hanging over one of Graham's ASU teams as to whether its goals are truly realistic.
The doubt exists because of the manner in which ASU has performed, and what many will undoubtedly call a questionable perspective from the top on down that the Sun Devils are still, even after suffering a four-touchdown defeat to a division opponent, better than ever before.