Losing to LSU on a fourthand-10 pass with 1:13 left? Devastating. Blowing a 21-3 halftime lead over USC? Disheartening. Getting beat up by Oregon, 31-17? New Year’s Eve in El Paso, Texas. So much for Arizona State’s quest to play in a BCS game. And its place at the Pac-10 head table.
The Sun Devils will have to make do with leftovers now, and with a road game at UCLA in early November, they will be fortunate to earn a second straight trip to El Paso and the Sun Bowl.
What a left turn this season has taken.
It was just eight days ago that ASU sprinted onto the field for the second half against USC and anything seemed possible.
Today, the Devils are 3-3 after having played five of six games at home and while the losses to LSU and USC are easy to explain — ASU isn’t as good as those teams — losing to Oregon doesn’t lend itself to rationalization.
The Devils had beaten the Ducks three straight games. Dirk Koetter had Mike Bellotti’s number, and it was 1-800-IWIN.
But ASU is now in seventh place in the Pac-10 — yes, seventh place — because it made too many mistakes and failed to do two simple but essential things:
Stop the run and run the ball.
You haven’t heard that before, right?
Oregon rushed for 236 yards while ASU tailbacks Rudy Burgess and Keegan Herring were limited to a combined 50 yards on 17 carries.
Koetter’s offense is a thing of beauty when it works. But ASU is never going to join college football’s elite until it develops a consistent ground game to complement its passing attack.
One moment defined the Sun Devils’ shortcomings. They had a third-and-1 at the Oregon 45 with less than two minutes left before halftime. Burgess, who weighs all of 181 pounds, ran off tackle and was stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
Oregon took over and drove downfield for a field goal and a 13-10 halftime lead.
In reality, the Ducks were more dominant than their 14-point win suggested.
Oregon scored 24 straight points after falling behind 10-0, and its defense stoned ASU, at one point forcing the Devils to go three-and-out on five of six possessions.
Quarterback Sam Keller finished 31 of 56 for 277 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The numbers aren’t bad, but you’re not going to win many football games if you have to throw it 50 times.
The only reason ASU still had a chance in the fourth quarter was because Bellotti tried to give the game away.
There was the 55-yard field goal try in the first quarter — by a backup walk-on freshman who hadn’t attempted a kick all season. It was blocked, naturally, and ASU took advantage of the field position to score and take a 7-0 lead.
There were the playcalling gaffes, like trying a 25-yard pass on third-and-3, running wide on second-and-2 when tailback Terrence Whitehead had been gashing ASU off tackle, or attempting a halfback pass back to quarterback Kellen Clemens when a little good ol’ fashioned pounding was doing just fine.
None of that, however, compared to the brain cramp Bellotti suffered late in the third quarter.
Oregon, nursing a 24-17 lead, had a fourth-and-goal at ASU’s 1-yard line. The call was obvious: Kick the chip shot field goal and make the Sun Devils score twice to win the game.
Instead, Bellotti went for it, Clemens’ pass fell incomplete, and the Sun Devils had life.
Or so it seemed.
ASU is off this week. That’s a good thing.
The Sun Devils need to regroup. And try, if they can, to redefine themselves.
They’re never going to be three yards and a cloud of dust. That’s not Koetter’s style.
But they shouldn’t be one yard and second-and-nine, either.