In what was supposed to be a promising season for Arizona State, but it came to a crushing end tonight as the West Virginia Mountaineers defeated the Sun Devils 43-42 in the 27th annual Motel 6 Cactus Bowl.
With the loss, Coach Todd Graham finishes his first losing season at ASU with a 6-7 record. This was not the way Graham’s “best team yet” was suppose to finish, especially with a failure to go for two points after their final touchdown and a timeout wasted on a kickoff.
Before any reporter had a chance to ask about the failure to go for the two point conversion in the post-game presser, Coach Graham stated, “Supposed to go for a two-point play and didn’t do it.”
After further questioning he replied, “It’s my fault. In the fourth quarter we have a chart in the box that we go by. We’re supposed to going for two. We didn’t. Mismanagement on our part. That’s my responsibility.”
A bad decision that very well may have cost them the game. In regard to the burned timeout on a kickoff Graham was more forthright with his answer. “We were fixing to do an on-side kick and we didn’t have the right personnel on the field. Another mismanagement deal.”
Although those two ‘mismanagements’ may have cost Arizona State the game, there was nothing but praise for the offensive game plan. With new Offensive Coordinator Chip Lindsey only having been with the team for a mere three weeks, the brunt of the play calling came from a collaboration of both Lindsey and QB Mike Bercovici. “Mike was pretty much the offensive coordinator,” Graham stated. That play calling put up over 520 yards but unfortunately one point short.
Offensive MVP, WVU’s QB Skylar Howard put up a Cactus Bowl record 532 yards in the air completing 28-for-51 passes. Many of them were targeting Arizona State DB Kweishi Brown, who seemed helpless as passes peppered him throughout the game. The recipients for all those passes went to Shelton Gibson leading the way with 4 catches for 143 yards and a TD. Ka’Raun White had 4 catches for 116 yards, Daikel Shorts finished with 6 catches for 97 yards and 2 TDs, while Jordan Thompson corralled 4 passes for 80 yards to round out the group.
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The list of offensive records broken tonight were many for the Cactus Bowl. Number of field goals, lead changes, kick-off return yards by one player (Tim White Arizona State 177), combined TD passes thrown (Howard 5, Bercovici 4), combined net passing yards thrown (950), total offensive yards by single player (Howard 550) were just a few that will sit in the bowl record books for a long time.
Arizona State also set a few milestones of their own tonight. Kicker Zane Gonzales passed Arizona State great Luis Zendejas for total career points and DJ Foster caught a pass in his 53 consecutive game (every game he’s played in), which is also a PAC-12 record. The first opponent’s point after touchdown to be returned for score in Arizona State history occurred when Ismael Murphy-Richardson blocked a PAT and then Tim White returned it right before the half.
Despite the loss, Arizona State had two unbelievable weapons shine tonight. The late season emergence of Devin Lucien continued with 9 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunate Arizona State only had him for one year. Also, a superstar that is off to chase his Olympic track dreams, is wide out Tim White. With his 210 return yards, 79 receiving yards and two TD’s combined with his PAT return, he showed what we can all expect from him next year.
The luster didn’t shine on the defense tonight as they got steamrolled for 676 yards. The two interceptions by Arizona State weren’t so much as good DB placement but more of errant Skylar Howard throws. The mishandle by defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood of a West Virginia fumble on their final drive was also a defensive miscue. The biggest offensive issue was the offensive line couldn’t hold down the WVU rush. Arizona State only managed 102 rushing yards as a team, with most of those coming in the second half.
For the casual football fan the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl was very entertaining, but for Arizona State fans it was just a glimpse of the season in a one game nutshell. The worst pass defense in the country being exposed and losing their fifth game this season while leading in the fourth quarter.
Coach Graham spoke of pride and culture, but even he knows without wins going up in the W column the fanbase and athletic department will get restless. His comment about having back to back 10 win seasons and maybe taking them for granted is telling. I do believe the culture has changed and there is a brotherhood among players, but can this be enough to be competing for PAC 12 championships.
Coach Graham has been here 4 years, so from here on out, every player in the maroon and gold is ‘his’. A new Offensive Coordinator and starting quarterback are on tap for 2016 which bring a huge unknown. Lets hope for everyone’s sake brotherhood culture prevails.