TEMPE, Ariz. — When the anger, frustration and bewilderment subsides from this 38-14 Pac-12 title game beatdown, some perspective will settle over Arizona State’s 2013 football season.
The Sun Devils (10-3) defeated a pair of teams in the current BCS top 25, they topped 50 points six times (five times against conference opponents), they beat UCLA on the road to win the Pac-12 South Division and they won seven straight games to earn the right to host the conference’s marquee event Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium.
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That is undeniable progress from the Dennis Erickson years, and even Todd Graham’s first year as coach. But when you’re 7-0 at home and you’re so close to Pasadena that you can smell the roses, perspective takes a number and waits its turn.
“I’m just a really bad loser,” Graham said in his postgame press conference. “I don’t like losing. I don’t think you learn a lot of from losing and I don’t want to do it any more.”
ASU wanted to believe it had progressed since its first meeting with Stanford in Palo Alto, a 42-28 loss. It wanted to believe that the special teams mistakes that plagued it in September were an anomaly that could be fixed. It wanted to believe it could handle the Cardinal’s physical lines, that this Stanford style was not its Achilles heel despite ample evidence from the previous meeting and games against Notre Dame and Utah.
But the first quarter was all anyone needed to see that none of that was true.
ASU opened the game with a bizarre, short kickoff that gave Stanford great field position at its own 38-yard line. Two plays later, with safety Alden Darby caught inside, Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney got the corner on the left side and ran 69 yards for a touchdown.
It was a gut punch to all the local hype surrounding this game, all the rose-colored predictions that Arizona State would win. And Stanford never stopped punching ASU in the mouth.
“From the first time we played them, we emphasized finishing games,” Gaffney said. “We couldn’t let the foot off the gas pedal there.”
The Sun Devils weren’t ready to admit they had been manhandled along the line of scrimmage.
“It was a matter of technique,” ASU tight end Chris Coyle said. “Physically, I think we’re able to match up against them.’
But Graham couldn’t deny what everyone had seen with their own eyes. Stanford ran for 240 yards — the same total the Cardinal amassed in their September win — and it held ASU (minus Marion Grice) to just 138 rushing yards.
“Stanford’s extremely physical. There’s not much margin for error,” said Graham. “Obviously they won that, because you can look at the stats. I think we’ve got a heck of a defensive football team. I think we’ve got a heck of an offensive line, but obviously they were better tonight. They were more physical.”
ASU won’t be going to the Rose Bowl, or any major bowl, for the 17th straight season. That is what will stick with the team and the fan base for the next couple of weeks. But the Devils did reach double digit wins for the first time since 2007 and they did take another step forward this season with a division title.
“Everybody’s dream was to make it to the Rose Bowl, but you know, we’ve just got to pick up where we left off and get ready for whatever bowl game we get selected for,” Coyle said. “We just didn’t get it tonight. We’ll figure it out and make sure we finish strong.”