After watching ASU’s disappointing loss to Texas Tech, some critical observations are necessary. The Sun Devils took the field for the Holiday Bowl seemingly unprepared and unmotivated. Here are some final thoughts.
1.) The Defense
First and foremost, the Arizona State defense got stitched by an average Texas Tech offense. To be fair, the Tech players were darn near perfect in their passing, route running and pass protection. However, the ASU defenders, led by head coach Todd Graham, did not adjust.
Clearly, the game plan was to bring pressure to the Texas Tech quarterback — and the Sun Devils brought it. They blitzed relentlessly and played man-to-man on the receivers. And the Red Raiders made ASU pay for it.
Nobody will argue that selling out to get pressure on the quarterback was a bad idea. But when that pressure burns you over and over again, it’s time to adjust. ASU never did. Even after Texas Tech racked up 200 yards passing in the first quarter, the Sun Devils stuck to the game plan and continued to get burned.
This falls on the head coach.
When coach Graham saw that a) his rushers were not getting to the quarterback and b) his secondary could not handle the mesh patterns being run by Texas Tech, he should have made a change. He could have run some zone, or he could have done some zone-blitzes that bring linebackers but drop off defensive ends to an area. He could have played “soft man” with a big cushion and let linebackers play zone underneath with a 3-4 man rush.
But quite frankly, the Sun Devils were stubborn and kept playing press-man coverage and bringing lots of bodies on blitzes.
Texas Tech kept picking up those blitzes, running the rub routes to get guys open or using the size advantage of TE Jace Amaro. In fact, outside of a few hurried throws in the second half, ASU’s pressure game plan was entirely ineffective. You just can’t do that at this level. You just can’t be that predictable and expect to be successful.
2.) The Offense
The ASU offense, honestly, did not fare that much better than the defense. They didn’t fool anybody at all. There were too many negative plays and “three and outs.” Texas Tech was running with Sun Devil receivers all night.
Yes, ASU got hosed on two offensive pass interference calls on WR Jaelen Strong, but the officials didn’t cause the multiple sacks, incomplete passes or dropped throws. Nor did the officials bungle first-and-goal from the one yard line at the end of the first half.
Even though the Sun Devils got their ground game going to a certain degree, they were anything but “high octane.” They looked unprepared and seemed dumbfounded at their lack of success sustaining drives.
3.) Special Teams
Special teams, once again, killed Arizona State. The Texas Tech kickoff return for a TD followed ASU’s opening touchdown drive of the second half. It pushed the lead back to 14 points and re-directed the game’s momentum. It was a huge blow for the Sun Devils. And it was clear as day that the ASU return team was bunched up in the same “gap” or “lane” while pursuing the ball carrier.
These mishaps on special teams are unforgivable. They plagued ASU all season. Plus, it was a different unit of the special teams every week. One game, it was the punt team. Next week, it was the kickoff team, then the punt return team, etc.
Special teams play was not an issue under a new coaching staff last season, and it is strange that it was a problem this year. But whatever is going on, it has to be corrected before next season. If that means a staff member has to be reassigned, or unfortunately, removed, then so be it. It’s too important not to make wholesale changes in the coaching strategy of all special teams.
Even in the games the Sun Devils won this year, they were plagued with missed field goals, shanked punts, long kickoff returns and miscues on punt returns.
4.) Game Mentality
The biggest concern for any Arizona State fan has got to be how flat the Sun Devils looked in San Diego. ASU appeared very disinterested in this game. Their body language, technique and effort gave the appearance that they would rather have been somewhere else than in Qualcomm Stadium playing Texas Tech. It happens quite often in bowl games: one team is happy to be there and the other team is not.
Against the Red Raiders, ASU seemed like a team that was looking northward to Pasadena, believing that it should have been in the Rose Bowl instead of the Holiday Bowl. This falls again on the coaching staff.
Coach Graham and his assistants are experienced, but it’s possible this was the first time they had to lead a team in this situation — heavy favorites against a talented, hungry opponent with an average record.
Texas Tech is not the Naval Academy (no offense to the Midshipmen). Therefore, it is inconceivable that the ASU players and coaching staff actually though they could go through the motions in preparing for the Holiday Bowl. It is disappointing that they did not put forth their best physical and mental effort for this important contest.
Hopefully, Arizona State’s leadership will learn from this defeat and develop a better eye for complacency. This loss was not to a superior team, talent-wise. It was not due to schemes the Sun Devils hadn’t seen before. This loss was born from apathy and self-inflicted wounds. A perfect indicator is the penalties; ASU is one of the most disciplined, least penalized teams in the nation, and yet they had five penalties in the first half alone — silly penalties like jumping off-sides.
It just wasn’t the Arizona State football team that we have come to know recently and it was disappointing that they didn’t show up.
True fans of the Maroon and Gold will appreciate the 10-4 season and the Pac-12 South championship. But they will also carry this disappointment with them in the coming months. Let’s hope the players do, too, and bring a little fire into the off-season.