Sun Devils narrowly lose to West Virginia in Cactus Bowl

Arizona State had 520 offensive yards and didn't turn the football over and yet lost to West Virginia in the Cactus Bowl Saturday in Phoenix

Even though it took place two days into the new year, Arizona State's encore performance Saturday was the quintessential example of its 2015 season. 

West Virginia connected on one big pass play after another, the latest in a series of teams to dismantle the Sun Devils' secondary in recent months. When it was all said and done, the Mountaineers had 676 total yards, a season high and a bowl record, and 23 explosive plays of 15 or more yards. 

They needed every one of them, too. 

What's more, West Virginia also needed -- and received -- several uncharacteristic miscues from ASU coaches including a costly decision to not go for a two-point conversion when leading by five points with under five minutes left in the game, and a timeout taken before a kickoff earlier in the second half. 

The Mountaineers became the fifth team in five straight ASU losses to overcome a fourth quarter deficit and emerge victorious, winning by the narrowest of margins, 43-42, in front of 39,321 mostly frustrated Sun Devil fans in the 27th Motel 6 Cactus Bowl at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix. 

"I told them in the locker room, we let them down today," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "Had some coaching change stuff. Supposed to go for a two-point play and don't do it. That's my responsibility. I told our players, doesn't take away from how hard they played. I'm really proud of these guys."

ASU's season ends at 6-7, the first losing season for Graham since he also went 6-7 with a bowl loss at Pitt in 2011, and also the first losing season for ASU since 2011, in Dennis Erickson's final season. 

Quarterback Skyler Howard broke several major Cactus Bowl records including passing yards (532) and touchdown throws (five) for West Virginia, which finished its season at 8-5. More than half of his 28 completed passes went for 15 or more yards including seven for more than 25 yards. Five Mountaineers had multiple catches and more than 16 yards per reception. At one point in the game's third quarter, West Virginia was averaging 23 yards per catch. 

Even though the Sun Devils blitzed fewer times with six defenders than in recent games, and played some different coverages more often, including Cover-3, the result was no better. ASU held West Virginia to three field goals in the red zone early in the game, but never truly stopped the Mountaineers, and certainly not when it mattered. 

“I think they blitzed 100 percent of the time,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We knew they would. They were going to try and fill gaps, take away our run game. We’ve worked hard on the passing game.”

"Obviously the story of the game, the toughest thing of the game is we couldn't contain the vertical pass," Graham said. "We blew some coverages early."

In its last four losses, ASU has given up 500-plus yards in each game. It is currently last place nationally in passing yards allowed per game, at 337.8, and it is the worst it has done in the category in history. 

The most frustrating part of it for ASU is that it has had a chance to win every one of those games and could not. In three of the losses it also had 500-plus yards of offense, including on Saturday. 

The Sun Devils had 520 yards of total offense, with senior quarterback Mike Bercovici throwing for 418 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. ASU didn't turn the ball over at all, won the turnover battle 2-0, had a huge offensive output and great starting field position on average, and yet didn't win because it couldn't keep the Mountaineers from adding points to the scoreboard. 

"He ran by (senior corner) Kweishi (Brown) several times," Graham said. "We tried putting (senior) Solomon (Means) in there. [Junior running back De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes] did a great job. Gump went in there and did some good things. It was difficult because it was really their speed, our inability to get pressure on the quarterback."

The problems weren't just in the secondary, where Brown was most exposed and ASU was unable to find an alternate to take his place until Hayes, a junior running back convert, had some success in the second half. 

After senior wide receive Gary Chambers caught a 58 yard touchdown pass to put ASU up 41-36 with just under five minutes left. the Sun Devils inexplicably kicked the point after try to go up six points rather than try to for two and a seven point advantage. 

Graham's costly miscue was addressed by the ASU coach even before he took questions in the post-game press conference. Not having former offensive coordinator Mike Norvell on the sidelines perhaps contributed to the mistake, but not enough that it should have happened. 

"It's my fault, in the fourth quarter we have a chart in the box that we go by," Graham said. "We're supposed to be going for two. We didn't. Mismanagement on our part. That's my responsibility."

The Sun Devils also took a timeout after taking a one point lead in the third quarter prior to a kickoff. It was a timeout it really could have used in the end when West Virginia was working to run out the game clock. 

"We were fixing to do an onside kick and we didn't have the right personnel on the field," Graham said. "Another mismanagement deal."

ASU junior kicker Zane Gonzalez -- who in the game broke the career scoring record of 380 points by Luis Zendejas -- didn't give up any return yardage in the game, so ASU could have likely absorbed the five yard delay penalty. 

As costly as anything, the Mountaineers converted important third and 12 and third and 22 plays with runs in the fourth quarter, the second of which was as important as any of the team's dozen-plus explosive completions. Graham said not having junior Spur Laiu Moeakiola contributed to the problem. 

"We’re in a basic call," Graham said. "We don’t get it communicated. That’s the difference between [winning] and losing.”

Even with no clear play-caller -- the work was done as a team with Bercovici, new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, and ASU tight ends coach Chip Long all involved -- the Sun Devils had an impressive showing. 

Senior wide receiver Devin Lucien had nine catches for 144 yards and broke the 1,000 yard mark on the season as a result. Junior wide receiver Tim White had four catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns and a total of 289 all-purpose yards, breaking a record by Wilford White in 1951. 

But it didn't matter, at least not in the win-loss column. Graham is 29-3 when leading at halftime in his ASU career. In the last 10 weeks he's lost five games in which his team held a fourth quarter lead. 

"I look no further than me," Graham said. "It's leadership. You win close games, why you lose close games. We're the same group of guys. I told these guys, these guys have taken the program to the Pac-12 championship (game) in 2013. These seniors have been a part of that.

"We've always won those games in the past. We just didn't finish. Most of those are self-destruction. We got to do a better job. I look to the games that we lost, especially the three, basically last play or series of the game. We got some things in there we definitely could have done from a management standpoint to do a better job." 


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