Sun Devils looking to regroup after first loss
Arizona State coach Todd Graham, almost since the day he arrived in the desert, has harped on three things: ball protection, penalties and special teams.
Against Missouri, the checklist went something like this: fail, fail, fail.
Four turnovers, two more penalties than they had the previous two games combined and a disastrous day on special teams led to a 24-20 loss to the Tigers on Saturday.
After two easy opening wins under Graham, this isn't exactly what the Sun Devils had in mind for their first road game.
''I was real concerned last week,'' Graham said on Monday. ''I felt like we were winning big, but we were not taking care of the football. We were winning big, but we were making mental errors, things that were concerning and would cost you to lose close games. And that's what happened on Saturday.''
The Sun Devils got away with some lapses in convincing wins over Northern Arizona and Illinois to open the season.
They didn't against Missouri.
Arizona State rallied after being stunned by the atmosphere in Columbia, getting two chances in the closing minutes to win it.
The Sun Devils weren't able to come through, bogged down by too many mistakes.
Arizona State lost two fumbles against the Tigers and has five on the season, more than all but seven teams. The Sun Devils also had two interceptions after having none the first two games, including one thrown by Taylor Kelly in the end zone in the final minute.
Penalties, a problem in the past for the program, were almost nonexistent the first two games; Arizona State had five, just two of those by the starters. Against Missouri, the Sun Devils had seven for 54 yards, including five on false starts in noisy Memorial Stadium.
The worst came on special teams.
Arizona State gave up a 42-yard return on the opening kickoff and Jamal Miles fumbled a punt return. Punter Josh Hubner also bobbled a snap, resulting in an 11-yard punt that Graham considered a fifth turnover, and holder Ryan Woods bumbled a PAT snap that forced the Sun Devils to twice go for a winning touchdown in the closing minutes instead of being able to try for a tying field goal.
''The things as we went into the game, the game plan was to own the ball, no penalties and win special teams,'' Graham said. ''So we obviously didn't do a good job of preparing them to do that.''
The good part, if there ever is one in a loss, is that Arizona State never gave up.
Playing in a hostile environment for the first time seemed to stun the Sun Devils in Columbia and they fumbled around for most of the first half - 27 total yards until a late drive - to fall behind by 17 points in the third.
Arizona State managed to rally behind Kelly, who didn't have a spectacular game statistically - 178 yards on 14-of-23 passing, 59 more yards rushing - but sparkled by extending plays and making some big throws.
The Sun Devils drove for a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown runs by Marion Grice, but trailed 24-20 after the mishandled PAT snap.
Arizona State kept coming, twice driving deep into Missouri's end of the field in the final five minutes, but came up just short of finishing off what would have been an impressive comeback.
''Our players played with unbelievable heart, that means all of them,'' Graham said. ''They played with great character, great discipline and I think we've got a lot of positive things we can take from that game.''
Up next for Arizona State is its Pac-12 opener against Utah, a team that's missing its starting quarterback - Jordan Wynn retired after a fourth shoulder injury - but has a big, physical defense.
The Sun Devils will face the Utes at Sun Devil Stadium, where they've gotten great support so far in Graham's first season, but know they'll need to clean up the problems they had against Missouri or face their first losing streak under their new coach.
''We will have our hands full obviously,'' Graham said. ''(They are) a great defensive football team. We have to correct the mistakes we made last week but our guys know that they have to start counting this week. Our goal and our focus is conference play and winning championships and it starts this week.''
It should be a good measuring stick for the Sun Devils to see how they handle adversity.