For an Arizona State senior class that spent its first few years with the Sun Devils contributing to back-to-back 10-win seasons, the closing months of its time with the program had to feel like an out of body experience.
"It's crazy, I don't even know what I'm thinking," senior wide receiver Frederick Gammage said after Friday evening's 56-35 loss to Arizona in the Territorial Cup.
A former walk-on turned starting slot receiver, Gammage recorded a career-high with 12 catches for 116 yards and one touchdown in Friday's defeat in Tucson, leaving him with a bittersweet memory to culminate his career at ASU.
Gammage and the rest of his senior teammates leave ASU as one of the winningest classes in recent Sun Devil history, but the group will also leave the program wondering what could have been.
Could the 2016 seniors' final season, one that began with a 5-1 start and included conference wins over California and UCLA, really have come to an end in November, on the heels of a six-game losing streak marred by "atrocious defense" according to head coach Todd Graham.
Yes, in fact, that's exactly how a class that began its time at ASU with no shortage of promise rode off into the sunset.
While Gammage put forth the best effort of his career on his final night, sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins couldn't help but lament how the rest of ASU's team failed to pick up the pieces of a splintered season on Friday.
"I wish we could have got this one for the seniors, but it's the end of an era for them and the beginning of a new future for them. Next year, we're going to come out and get things rolling," Wilkins said.
The end of an era for players like linebacker Salamo Fiso, linebacker Laiu Moeakiola, and defensive tackle Viliami Latu, all of whom played key roles on 10-win teams in 2013 and 2014 when ASU's run defense ranked among the conference's best. All of whom were on the field when the program's run defense fell apart to the tune of allowing 511 yards against a downtrodden Arizona squad.
The end of an era for players like offensive linemen Evan Goodman and Stephon McCray, who patiently waited their turn during the early parts of their careers when veterans opened lanes for backs like Marion Grice and D.J. Foster. 2016 was supposed to be the year they paved the way for dynamic juniors Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, but instead, both Goodman and McCray were on the field as ASU abandoned the run game early against an Arizona team that entered the weekend ranking ninth in the Pac-12 in total defense.
The end of an era for players like Zane Gonzalez and Matt Haack, specialists who helped ASU turn around one of the Pac-12's worst special teams units in the conference, and became bright spots for a program that didn't have many in 2016. Still, on their final night in an ASU uniform, Gonzalez missed a field goal, and Haack averaged 31.5 yards per punt on a pair of mishit boots.
At the end of the 2014 season, it may have been impossible to predict such a devastating finish for a class that brought the ASU program so much life, and perhaps that's why Graham was so blunt in his postgame remarks on Friday. After all, the group that inspired the best run of his career was headed for the exits, so who's left to pick up the pieces?
"I tell them I love them," Graham said. "This isn't about me, some of these guys have been here five years, they've done a lot of great things for our program, and obviously we didn't want them to go out like that, but we didn't show up to play tonight."
After the Sun Devils lost their sixth straight game and failed to meet Graham's minimum program expectation of achieving bowl eligibility, it's unclear exactly what pieces will need to be mopped off the floor and which ones will need to be salvaged, but there's no doubt the outgoing senior class at ASU leaves a significant void.
In recent weeks, Graham has talked about the struggles ASU has had communicating on defense with Fiso injured and Moeakiola attempting to pick up the slack. He's offered over-the-top praise of Gonzalez, who is practically a shoe-in to win the Lou Groza Award given to the nation's top placekicker. But Graham has also expressed his disappointment, for letting a group that gave him so much go out with so little.
During ASU's six-game losing streak, the torch began to pass, but the Sun Devils will need more than just freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry to keep the flame lit.
Harry reeled in nine catches and set ASU freshman records for single-season receptions (58) and receiving yards (659), but he'll need help along the way if the Sun Devils want to experience the euphoria of a 10-win season or a Pac-12 South title in the near future.
Will freshmen like Chase Lucas and Robbie Robinson help plug the massive gaps in ASU's secondary? Can a tight end like sophomore Jay Jay Wilson become an X-factor for ASU's offense? Will Wilkins, freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole, or another signal-caller become the dynamic play-maker and leader Graham yearns for out of his quarterback?
These are the types of questions the class of 2016 faced entering the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and they're questions the class of 2016 often had answers for. After a 5-7 season, ASU has no shortage of questions, but Graham said following Friday's embarrassment that he wouldn't waste any time pondering solutions: He'd get to work on the bus ride home.null