If losing to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game was the wound, consider this the salt.
No. 14 Arizona State flopped Monday night in the Holiday Bowl, losing to Texas Tech 37-23 and finishing a season that could have been one of the program’s best ever with back-to-back losses.
"Today was disappointing," ASU coach Todd Graham said on 92.3 KTAR following the game. "I mean, it was embarrassing for me that we didn’t have our team better prepared than what we had it.
"I’m not going to make any excuses. You have to give Texas Tech credit."
There’s no way to sugarcoat ASU’s performance in San Diego. The Sun Devils were outplayed and outcoached in what was almost certainly their worst performance of the season. On top of it all, they beat themselves with penalties and critical mistakes on both sides of the ball.
All the good feelings that came with winning the Pac-12 South, beating rival Arizona for a second straight season, reaching 10 wins and hosting the Pac-12 title game seem distant now as ASU enters the offseason on a sour note.
"We didn’t play very well in the championship game, and obviously we didn’t play very well now," Graham said. "Two poor performances by our guys. Getting beat by Stanford is one thing. Getting beat by Texas Tech and not being prepared — we probably played our worst game of the season — is unacceptable."
Today was disappointing. I mean, it was embarrassing for me that we didn’t have our team better prepared than what we had it. I’m not going to make any excuses.
ASU coach Todd Graham
All the Sun Devils did accomplish this season should have a positive impact on the program going forward. Accumulating 18 wins and a division title in a new coach’s first two seasons is nothing to scoff at. But with as close as ASU got to a Rose Bowl berth and the way it whiffed on the chance to win 11 games, many will remember this season for opportunities missed.
An 11th win would have put ASU in elite company, as only five teams in school history have won that many. A Holiday Bowl win would have given the Sun Devils their first in four appearances in the game and best bowl win since the 1987 Rose Bowl.
Instead, ASU finishes the year with two straight losses, a far cry from the offseason momentum it gained from three straight wins to finish last season.
"We didn’t respond well after losing the championship game," Graham admitted. "It’s my job to get them ready, and we didn’t get them ready."
From the very start, Texas Tech had ASU on the ropes, scoring on the opening drive and not looking back. The Red Raiders scored on their first four offensive possessions to take a commanding 27-6 lead that the Sun Devils could only cut to 27-13 at halftime, in part due to a strategic blunder with the clock ticking down.
A first-and-goal situation ended with no points for the Sun Devils after they rushed to attempt a field goal — which missed — on third-and-goal rather than spiking the ball to better set up a field-goal attempt or attempt at a touchdown.
Still, ASU had the chance to pull within a touchdown when it got the ball to start the third quarter. It did so on a 44-yard touchdown run by quarterback Taylor Kelly … only to give the points right back by allowing a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
"I guarantee you we’re going to go to work to get our special teams fixed," Graham said. "From a special-teams standpoint, we’ve done so poor. We’ve got to address that, and we will."
ASU had other issues, as well. In the third quarter, Kelly missed a wide-open Kevin Ozier with a low pass that, if on target, would have gone for a touchdown. In the fourth quarter, sophomore receiver Richard Smith dropped a deep ball he appeared to have caught as he tumbled into the end zone.
But more damning than ASU’s failures were Texas Tech’s successes. The Red Raiders used an impressively quick tempo to keep ASU’s defense off-balance and routinely beat it with long passing plays.
Texas Tech freshman quarterback Davis Webb finished with 403 passing yards and four touchdowns while All-American tight end Jace Amaro reeled in eight catches for 112 yards before announcing after the game he would leave college early to enter the NFL Draft.
The Red Raiders were also exceedingly efficient on third down much of the game, converting nine of 16 tries while ASU converted just six of 19. ASU also doubled its average penalty yardage total (29.23) with 59 penalty yards on seven penalties.
"We just played horribly," Graham said. "A lot of mental errors, a lot of mental mistakes on both sides of the football."
It was apparent ASU thought it had the game won before it even kicked off. The Sun Devils did not respond well to losing their biggest game of the season in the Pac-12 title game, and the result was overlooking a team that came in on a five-game losing streak, a team they by all accounts should have beaten with ease.
Again, there’s no way to polish Monday’s loss, and Graham was right to call it "embarrassing" for the program. But if there is any optimistic take, it’s that perhaps ASU has now learned how to handle losing on the big stage.
Graham recalled that ASU lost the Holiday Bowl in 1985 before winning the program’s lone Rose Bowl the next season. Perhaps, he seemed to suggest, a step back is required to learn how to move further forward.
The 2014 season is a long way away and could play out any number of ways, but Graham’s overriding message following Monday’s loss was one of optimism amid disappointment.
"I know a lot’s been made that I put all the marbles in winning the Pac-12 championship," Graham said. "I don’t apologize for that. I want our fans to be very disappointed, but I’ll tell you this: We’re building something special. The minimum expectation now is 10 wins and winning the Pac-12 championship."
As much as that message should inspire hope about ASU’s future, it will be hard for the fans to swallow any time soon.