BERKELEY, Calif. -- ASU raced out to a 17-3 lead on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, which is the same as it held on the road at Washington State earlier this month in the first half before faltering in that game.
This time though, the Sun Devils one-upped themselves and stretched that to a 24-3 advantage before the midway point of the second quarter. It still wasn't enough. ASU was 28-1 in the Todd Graham era when leading at halftime until losing to the Cougars. Now ASU's 1-2 in its last three games when leading at halftime, 29-3 in the Graham era.
That particular stat is a microcosm of this season in several respects.
One, ASU has won the close games overwhelmingly in the Graham era until this season but in 2015 it has failed to do so. Fourth quarter leads against Utah, Washington State, Oregon and Cal in the second half of the season alone and lost every game. Think about that. Graham was 29-1 with halftime leads and now has lost 2 of the last 3 such games. How does a program win 95 percent of games with a halftime lead and then lose four games in a six game stretch in which it had a fourth quarter lead? That's brutal. This game was an emblem of the season and appropriate in a manner of speaking that it ended the way it did.
The second way this loss embodies this season is that is happened in the same way all the losses have happened, which is to say that ASU had massive coverage busts and generally failed in the secondary, and especially the fact this happened against Cal in a remarkably similar way to ASU's loss against Washington State, a team that runs the same offense, basically. So ASU got torched against the Cougars in the second half in their comeback from a 17-3 deficit to win against an ASU team on the road, and now Cal, using the same offense did the same thing.
This game frighteningly mirrored that Washington State game except in the respect Jared Goff and to a lesser degree Cal's receivers are hands down more talented and potent. There is no more important stat in this game than ASU getting zero sacks against Goff despite blitzing on a majority of downs and bringing six man pressures on many passing downs. This isn't Colorado, when ASU had eight sacks, or Arizona, when ASU had eight sacks. This is a team with a great quarterback who understands what's coming at him and what he needs to do to defeat it.
After the game Todd Graham was adamant about his defensive philosophy being the right approach even in a game like this one in which ASU didn't get to Goff. Here's what he had to say:
"It has nothing to do with that," Graham said. "We would get beat 100 to nothing if we didn't pressure. Anybody that knows anything about football knows it can be pretty challenging, I mean, we've lost both our starting free safety and our bandit safety and we've got some guys playing brand new positions. We've got one free safety that's never played there.
That's who we are and what we're about is pressure. 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."
I think Graham's opinion on this is something that warrants a healthy conversation in the wake of this game and this season and it's something we'll get into a lot more in days/weeks/months to follow. While there's no doubt that ASU's defensive backs haven't performed well enough this season for the team to be successful, tonight being case and point, my opinion is that ASU's particular blitzing needed further examination. This isn't a so-called Psycho defense or Amoeba defense like we see in the NFL, in which it's difficult to anticipate who will blitz when. ASU tips its blitzes off a lot more than that and better quarterbacks and schemes are able to get the ball out quickly enough and with enough confidence on the decisions that it makes it hard even when the defenders are doing their jobs, unless they are just outstanding players.
It's really no surprise how Cal beat ASU. It was the slants that gave ASU fits against Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl a few years ago and Washington State earlier this month in the same defense. When you bring six defenders at the quarterback and don't get there, a slant goes for a touchdown sometimes because there's no safety there. Graham said ASU would have lost 100 to nothing if it didn't pressure and that's what the system is founded upon. But Cal went for touchdowns in the second half on five drives in a row, of 94, 75, 75, 71, and 75 yards and only one of those drives took more than six plays!
The reason I'm not convinced Graham is right is because Cal only needed three red zone trips in the game and scored 48 points. That's incredible. Cal has at times struggled in the red zone but didn't even need to see if it would tonight to nearly reach 50 points. ASU on the other hand got into the red zone nine times and scored on every trip and still lost because it had to settle for six field goals.
Now granted, ASU had major injuries. Senior Jordan Simone and sophomore Armand Perry are the real starters at safety, neither played in this game. It's a lot to ask of freshmen Kareem Orr, especially converting him from corner to safety and then from free to Bandit. Throwing senior Solomon Means at a position he's never played with two games left in his regular season career is going to be hard for anyone, but especially when it's man coverage assignments and if you mess up it's often a touchdown. If you're not really diminishing Goff's effectiveness by pressuring, are you being successful by doing so?
Graham said he's not changing, so we know his team has to get more athletic and more assignment sound on the back end as a result. No other way around that. It seemed like guys were not on the same page tonight, calls coming in were confusing players, Graham said it was a major issue. Cal did a very good job protecting, knew how to handle the blitzes or when to let players go and trust Goff would get the ball out. How many times did we see ASU players mere steps -- or less -- away from Goff and it didn't matter because the ball came out accurately. Then on top of all of this, ASU's tackling was very bad in this game.
There were some great performances tonight that were wasted.
ASU senior Mike Bercovici had a terrific game outside of some mistakes he made not keeping the ball on read option in the first half when he could have piled up yards and probably got ASU maybe one additional score or touchdown. 27 of 43 for 395 yards and four touchdowns.
Junior kicker Zane Gonzalez set an ASU record with six field goals in a game, made all of his tries. He's now hit 12 straight field goal attempts. He's the first player in ASU history to have more than 20 field goals in three seasons.
Senior wide receiver Devin Lucien did even better than the Arizona game and he said that was his best career performance. How about ending your career with the two best games you've ever had in the final two regular season games? He had eight catches, 200 yards, three touchdowns to make it 490 receiving yards and four touchdowns in a two game stretch. He was really down after the game after a performance of that caliber.
Senior left guard Christian Westerman was like a man possessed in this game. He was chasing down and blocking Cal players 20 yards downfield and pushing them out of bounds, hammering people on down blocks. He played great.
Sophomore running back Demario Richard had eight carries in the first series and wound up with 33 carries in the game for 131 yards in a gutty effort. Sophomore Kalen Ballage was bothered seemingly by his right arm and only had five carries. Richard became the 22nd ASU running back to go over 1,000 yards in a season in this game.
Doesn't matter though. It's a loss. We'll have a lot more unpacking of this game in the days to follow. We were told in the press box by a good source that a win in this game and ASU was very likely -- almost for sure -- headed to the Cactus Bowl. Now it looks like it will be something much further away, perhaps the Independence Bowl in Shreveport on Dec. 26.