BERKELEY, Calif. -- In a season marred with continuous disappointment and fourth quarter collapses, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham routinely insisted critics evaluate the Sun Devils on how they finish the year.
After surrendering a 21-point lead and suffering through the worst meltdown of Graham’s four-year tenure in a 48-46 loss to California in the Sun Devils’ regular season finale on Saturday evening, it’s now time to pass judgment.
Buoyed by an early 24-3 lead that ultimately became a 27-10 halftime advantage, ASU’s defensive breakdowns cost the Sun Devils a chance at their third straight victory and instead sent the team to its fourth loss of the year in which it held a fourth quarter lead.
“We lost a last-second game tonight, we lost an overtime game to Oregon, we’re leading three of those games in the fourth quarter, we figured out a way to lose every close game this year that we played in and that was the story,” Graham said.
The Sun Devils held fourth quarter leads in their final eight regular season games, but failed to secure wins in four of those games on their way to a 6-6 record.
“You score 46 points, you’ve got to win the game,” Graham said. “I don’t know, unless it was an overtime game, I don’t know that we’ve scored that many points and lost a game. We just were absolutely terrible defensively.”
For a program that has become defined by its success at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, the Sun Devils’ all-or-nothing defensive strategy proved to be its undoing over the latter half of the season.
Entering the game tied for the national lead in sacks with an average of 4.0 per game, the Sun Devils failed to record a single sack of Cal junior quarterback Jared Goff on Saturday night.
In what could ultimately be his final home game should he forego his senior season to enter the NFL Draft, Goff turned in an unforgettable performance to derail the Sun Devils.
The third-year starter led Cal to six consecutive second half scoring drives to end the contest, including five straight touchdown drives of at least 70 yards and a 69-yard drive to set up the game-winning field goal as time expired.
“It’s a once in a lifetime thing right there, the locker room scene right now,” Goff said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Goff finished with 30 completions on 51 passing attempts for a school record 542 yards and five touchdowns, but it was more than just his arm that neutralized ASU’s blitz-heavy scheme.
On a night in which Goff completed six passes of at least 30 yards, it was two critical second half scrambles that kept the Golden Bears’ comeback hopes alive.
Trailing 33-24 late in the third quarter, Cal faced a third down and 10 from its own 38-yard line. On a rare occasion in which ASU’s secondary provided sound coverage and the Sun Devil front forced Goff to shift in the pocket, the veteran signal-caller sprinted downfield for a career-long 20-yard rush that kept the Golden Bears’ drive alive.
Five plays later, Goff found wide receiver Maurice Harris for a nine-yard touchdown strike that cut ASU’s lead to 33-31.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Goff’s legs proved invaluable again, as the Golden Bears trailed 39-37 and needed a conversion on third down and seven to avoid a three-and-out following an ASU field goal.
As the ASU blitz approached Goff, he rolled to his left and darted a yard beyond the line to gain to sustain a drive that soon culminated with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Darius Powe that gave the Golden Bears a 45-39 lead.
“The story tonight was Jared Goff and their passing game and we absolutely knew exactly what they were doing and could not stop it,” Graham said. ”Very frustrating.”
Even as Goff marched the Golden Bears’ offense down the field at will through the second half, ASU had plenty of chances to build on its early advantage. The Sun Devils racked up 586 yards of total offense and scored on all nine red zone opportunities, but ASU routinely kicked its hopes away.
Junior kicker Zane Gonzalez set an ASU single-game record with six field goals against the Golden Bears, but to keep pace with Cal’s “Bear Raid,” the Sun Devils needed touchdowns.
In the second half alone, ASU answered three Golden Bears touchdown drives with series that ended in field goals, and by the time ASU found the end zone in the second half, it was the Golden Bears’ turn to answer with a kick of their own.
“We were scoring, had some momentum on offense and we gave up some yards but when we needed to get a stop they found a way to do it and made some big plays on third down, especially in the red zone and forced Arizona State to kick field goals,” Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said.
Lucien’s 42-yard catch gave him a career-high 200 yards receiving and put ASU inside the Cal five-yard line, and two plays later, Bercovici found junior tight end Raymond Epps on a four-yard pass that gave ASU a 46-45 lead with 2:29 remaining.
But on a night when any amount of time may have been too much left for Goff and the Golden Bears, 149 seconds gave Cal more than enough clock to set up the game-winning score.
Just as he had all game, Graham dialed up heavy pressure on Cal’s final drive, and Goff responded with surgeon-like precision. On a critical third down and four at ASU’s 34-yard line, Goff used a quick release to once-again combat the Sun Devils’ rush.
The result was a perfect strike to senior wide receiver Bryce Treggs whose 13-yard catch on a slant route moved Cal within field goal range. After the Golden Bears bled the clock down, sophomore kicker Matt Anderson knocked home a 26-yard field goal as the clock expired to seal perhaps ASU’s worst loss of the season.
“Every time we pressured, we knew exactly what they were going to do,” Graham said. “They never, they didn’t do anything complicated. When we brought pressure, they were going to throw slants. Nothing complicated. The first time they did that, they went for a 40-yard touchdown. Obviously we got exposed, they attacked our safeties, and we didn’t play very good there.”
The Sun Devils enjoyed plenty of offensive highs on Saturday as Bercovici threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns without an interception, Lucien hauled in a career-high three-touchdowns, and sophomore running back Demario Richard surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the season with a 131-yard effort, but in the end, the 46-point performance was all for naught.
“The numbers don’t mean anything when you take an ‘L,” Lucien said. “Point blank, simple and plain. But I’d rather take an ‘L’ with this team than anybody else.
Four weeks after the Washington State Cougars stormed back from an early 14-3 first half deficit to hand ASU its second loss of Graham’s tenure when leading at the half, Cal employed a very similar offense as the one that picked apart the Sun Devils’ defensive inefficiencies.
ASU entered the Washington State contest 28-1 under Graham when leading at the half, and in the month of November, the Sun Devils have now dropped a pair of games in which they entered the break on top, nevermind four in which they led in the fourth quarter.
Whether or not ASU’s pressure-based scheme is the right approach against pass-happy offenses is up for debate, but on Saturday, Goff obliterated the Sun Devils’ secondary on his way to setting school records for single-season passing yards, touchdown passes and total offense.
“Jared (Goff) is a baller,” Treggs said. “He threw for 540 yards, and it was a really gutsy performance. He’s been beaten up a lot this year, but he always finds a way to fight and deliver throws in the pocket. I don’t know if he’s coming back next year, but if that’s his last game in Memorial Stadium, he sure went out with a bang.”
Though ASU didn’t have an answer for anything Cal offered offensively on Saturday, Graham denied any thought of adjusting the Sun Devils’ ideology as long as he’s at the helm of ASU’s program.
“That's who we are and what we're about is pressure,” Graham said. “That's just the way it is, the way it's going to be, as long as I'm the head coach, that's what it's going to be. If you want somebody not to blitz, get somebody else. Because there's no doubt in my mind that what we do is the best thing we can do for our guys."