PULLMAN, Wash. -- While reflecting on this Arizona State team and its 38-24 loss at Washington State on Saturday, its third straight loss and third straight time it held a lead early in the fourth quarter only to not be able to hold it, one overriding thing kept coming the forefront of my thoughts:
The X-factor quality that is easy to identify but hard to define is just absent in these Sun Devils. They don't have it. They probably never did.
That's a tough thing to take for fans who saw the heroics of quarterback Mike Bercovici last season when pressed into action and thought he could be the special player who would put ASU on his shoulders and take them beyond that 10-win threshold and into magical territory.
Bercovici is a great young man who says and does all of the right things, has no quit in him, throws no teammate under the bus ever, and is someone you'd hire in a heartbeat to be a cog in your professional organization. I want to be clear, I respect the heck out of Bercovici as a person and as a teammate to his fellow Sun Devils.
This is a guy who improved substantially and waited in the wings for four years for this opportunity, all the while working on a daily basis as if he was the starter. That is an extremely difficult thing for a young person to do, without seeing more immediate fruits of labor in a world of immediate gratification. This is a young man who graduated college early and got into a post-graduate program and by all accounts is an exemplary student-athlete.
But Bercovici is not that special Jake Plummer-like quarterback in the only year in which he'll have a chance to demonstrate it, and that's just how it is. Maybe if he had a couple full seasons as a starter to learn, as Plummer did before the special 1996 season. Maybe not.
We saw this again Saturday, the opportunity to hit a wide open junior tight end Kody Kohl who was five yards behind the Washington State defense and yet the result was a steered throw that was a good 10 yards shy of where it needed to be and fell incomplete. The roll out along the 5 yard line that saw no player within 10 yards of Bercovici in which he could have literally skipped into the end zone but instead threw low and incomplete to sophomore tight end Raymond Epps.
There is a lack of high-end situational feel that elite quarterbacks have. It is the innate understanding of when a ball needs to be thrown away, when it can't be a check down, when a sack is absolutely inexcusable, when to run, when to not run, when to hand it off in a read option and why, when not to.
And to be completely fair to Bercovici, he doesn't have enough talent around him to be able to overcome not being a truly great quarterback. We've talked about this before and will have a long off-season to get deeper into the weeds on it, certainly.
But something's just missing with this group, that much is absolutely clear.
It's going to be easy to say it's the coaches' faults, and to the extent that it ultimately is their responsibility, absolutely it is. Head coach Todd Graham, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and the rest of the ASU staff clearly haven't done as well with this group as they did with their first three teams. It's collectively the worst job they've done in four seasons in Tempe.
But these are the same coaches who were 28-1 with a halftime lead until Saturday and have won 10 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the early 1970s. These are the same coaches who have been 7-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less dating to the 2012 win over Arizona. It's the same coaches who led ASU to several of their best offensive scoring seasons in recent decades. Indeed, ASU was second in the conference in scoring in 2012 and 2013 and third in 2014.
Graham and Norvell didn't just do a good job in their first three seasons at ASU, they did a great job. They out-performed their talent, out-prepared and out-coached their peers, beat teams that had a better caliber of player on average, and did it pretty darn consistently.
Firing coaches after one disappointment of a season that is on the heels of three great performances isn't the answer and isn't even something ASU should be considering. For those who have been especially critical of Norvell, I understand it and even agree with some of what's been said -- indeed, we've commented on the subject quite a bit this season -- but notion that ASU should go in a different direction with its offense or offensive leadership after one disappointing season is a knee-jerk reaction.
Really it is the contrast of how ASU has performed this season on offense -- and to some degree last season after quarterback Taylor Kelly returned to the lineup at less than full strength -- with how productive and capable they were prior to that under Norvell, coupled with Graham's hyping of this season as potentially special that has set off a powder keg in the fanbase.
It may seen counterintuitive, but if the Sun Devils hadn't been so successful offensively prior to this season, if they hadn't won quite as many games, if Bercovici hadn't been as successful when thrust into action last season, if Graham hadn't have been as effusive in his praise of this team before the season, the vitriol currently being thrown around by fans wouldn't be as severe.
Perhaps the biggest reason for these sentiments is that ASU has so drastically fallen short of Graham's very public high-bar expectations this season that it's shaken fans' confidence in his feel for the true capability of his team; because the alternatives to that are that he's just been disingenuous, or wanted success so badly he's failed to see his team as it actually is, and those possibilities would be even harder to accept.
No matter which of those scenarios or combination thereof is the case, it is understandably going to be a gut punch to emotionally invested fans who are starving for a team to reach prominence and play in a meaningful January game for the first time since that magical 1996 season. The problem with this sentiment though is that includes a potentially false conflation. Graham's misguided read of this team's capability doesn't necessarily lessen his overall competency as a football coach. It's very possible that this season ultimately proves to be anomalous in that regard, especially considering he had a pretty accurate read on his previous ASU teams.
There's another element to this that should be fleshed out. ASU fans grew tired of former basketball coach Herb Sendek's pragmatism and lack of fire and/or high goal setting. Now a lot of the same members of the community are upset and even angry that Graham's style falls on the other end of the spectrum. Navigating the difference between the two styles in a way that resonates over the long term is difficult to say the least. Fans want answers when a team falls short of goals that were perhaps unrealistic to start with, but also want answers when goals aren't set to such levels.
The most reasonable indictment of Graham this year may be that the talent level and depth at certain key positions isn't as good as needed to be given the expressed expectations. While it's hard to fault them for having Bercovici at quarterback given the very public and underhanded move by Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs to abandon ASU on signing day in Graham's first full year signing class, the Sun Devils failed to add a junior college offensive tackle or two, significantly overestimated what they'd get from junior De'Chavon Hayes at running back, didn't have enough capable wide receivers developing in the pipeline, and are too short on depth and athleticism in the secondary. We saw that plainly again on Saturday, when one slant pass after another was completed against ASU's defensive backs, and at least a handful of receptions saw no ASU defender anywhere in the immediate vicinity. This, even though Graham called fewer blitzes than perhaps any game of the season.
Next season, in year five of the program, they'll be transitioning to a new and inexperienced quarterback, have to replace four starting offensive linemen, three starting receivers and three starting defensive backs. Indeed, they may actually be more talented -- and probably will be -- but they'll also be less battled tested. They'll also have to rely on 2016 class signees at key positions because the current roster is sparse at spots, most specifically cornerback.
Ultimately, this season ended up being the transitional season that they were able to avoid in their first three years, with a starting quarterback they didn't recruit and the personnel that didn't really fit him and some placeholder type players on defense. Whether that turns into a two-year transitional period remains to be seen. There are a lot of really talented young players seeing action this season or redshirting, many of whom we feel fit the stylistic ideology of Graham and Norvell better than a lot of those currently playing.
It will be interesting to see how Graham frames the 2016 season in light of how this year has unfolded, and whether he and Norvell are able to recapture a lot of what enabled their tremendous three-year success before this bitter disappointment. Until then, there's going to be a lot of angst among fans of the program, and nothing will or can be said to alleviate that fully, not by Graham, Norvell or anyone else.
The expectations as set forth by Graham for this season can't be walked back, and he probably wouldn't do it even if he could. It's not in his nature. It's also the reason many like him so much, as well as the thing that could get him in the most trouble.