The clock showed about 4 minutes left in a game that the Arizona State Sun Devils were well within winning despite having absolutely no business doing so.
After being dominated on both sides of the ball for the better part of three quarters, the Sun Devils had clawed to within a 24-20 deficit in a hostile
Big 12 SEC environment. They stared down a 3rd and goal inside the 1 yard line, knowing full well that an earlier special teams gaffe meant that a field goal meant nothing; Arizona State had to get into the end zone.
At that point, head coach Todd Graham, who speaks so highly of both Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank as young, mature quarterbacks who can contribute immediately, had to make a choice. Does he leave in Kelly, who helped catalyze a frenetic 14-point comeback to get to this point, or stick to his strategy of using Eubank in goal line sets?
He chose Eubank. He chose poorly. One play later, the Tigers had the ball back, and 3:37 later, the Sun Devils had their first loss of the season.Lots of things were exposed in Arizona State's 24-20 loss to the Missouri Tigers, not the least of which was what we already knew about this team - they're young, they're raw and they have a lot of growing to do. It was only one game - and a tough one against a good opponent at that - but the loss brought to light several things that were masked in a 2-0 start that saw the Devils win two games at home against undermanned opponents while putting up 108 points and a staggering amount of rushing yards.
But back to that 3rd and 1 call. Tactically, it was such an obvious play call that it was doomed from the start. The Sun Devils lined up against a Missouri defense that, save a few plays, had been opportune and sharp all night long, with Eubank in shotgun. Everyone on the field, though, knew that he wasn't going to run. The game film and the scouting report shows that the freshman signal caller tries to do it with his legs.
It was a chance to throw a wrench into that, perhaps with some play action and a toss to Chris Coyle. But no. Eubank did exactly what we all thought. He ran up the middle, got stuffed at the 4 and was able to wriggle away to save a two-yard loss.
A play later, Kelly comes back in, can't hit Kevin Ozier on a short pass and, effectively, the game is over.
Graham has said dating back to the early days of fall camp that both Kelly and Eubank will play because both deserve time on the field, but now that conference play is afoot and the Sun Devils have at least shown that six victories and a lower-tier bowl bid isn't completely ruled out, one guy needs to establish himself as the rock-solid starter. That man needs to be Kelly and it needs to start this Saturday night against Utah.
Kelly's poise, calm and tactical prowess during the Devils rally from down 24-7 was something to behold for a program and a fan base that has grown so weary of Arizona State teams that fall behind early on the road and tend to stay down. Not since 2009 at Georgia had the Devils rallied so admirably in a road game, and as Jarrell Holman can attest, the defense keyed that comeback more than Danny Sullivan did.
Now's the time to anoint Kelly as "the man" going forward. Trust is earned through constant repetition in all phases of the game, whether it's 2nd and 9 in the middle of the 1st quarter or on 4th and short late in the 4th. Familiarity breeds trust, and perhaps next time, Kelly completes that potentially game-winning pass.
Certainly, there were other things that ASU needs to improve on as they head into a key Pac-12 opener against a Utah team that, despite the referees form the 1972 USA/USSR Olympic basketball gold medal game trying desperately trying to hand BYU a victory, need an early victory just as much as the Sun Devils do.
Namely, that number one thing is getting back to the kind of disciplined play Arizona State displayed against NAU and Illinois. Watching the Sun Devils take seven penalties and seeing yellow flags fly like Dennis Erickson was riding dirty on the ASU sideline was an unwelcome sight, especially A) they were inopportune, undisciplined and poorly timed, just as they were in the darkest days of the Erickson era and B) after the Devils combined for just eight flags in their first two games.
The best teams in the Pac-12 will feast on the Sun Devils if they get back to their penalty doldrums. Fact.
In the meantime, Arizona State just has to get back to what they did best in their first two outings - run the ball, let Taylor Kelly manage an effective offense and play within their emotions.
If they do that, Todd Graham will have this team back on track.