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Holiday Bowl debacle sours a great season for Sun Devils

Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury, bottom left, is doused with an energy drink by Texas Tech defensive lineman Dennell Wesley, bottom right, after Texas Tech beat Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl NCAA college football game Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

SAN DIEGO -- It wasn't supposed to end like this.

The 2013 season had been a special one for the Arizona State Sun Devils. There was the win over Wisconsin, the blowout of USC. The dismantling of Washington, the Pac-12 South clinching win at UCLA and the unmitigated slaughter of Arizona.

Ten wins -- not too shabby.

So why do I have this horrible taste in my mouth that not even a handful of Altoids could eliminate?

That's because the Sun Devils flat out stunk up the joint in their last two games of 2013.

One of those, looking back, was almost expected. Stanford, an elite program that had played in three straight BCS bowls and had already crushed ASU in Palo Alto, ran roughshod over Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship Game in early December. It was a very business-like performance. The Cardinal got off the bus, did what they wanted, and left town with another conference title.

There would be no trip to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day for these Sun Devils. Their consolation was a trip to San Diego to play in a good bowl game against a team they should beat. But things didn't go as planned for ASU. They were embarrassed by a Texas Tech team that had lost their starting quarterback, their offensive coordinator and their last five games, 37-23 at Qualcomm Stadium Monday night.

The Sun Devils played with very little energy, very little purpose and even less effectiveness against the Red Raiders, who jumped out to a 27-6 lead in the second quarter and weren't really challenged the rest of the way.

The loss to Stanford was easily explained -- the Cardinal are a better football team and a program further in their process than Arizona State.

Monday's loss was troubling for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, ASU was dominated by an inferior football team because they weren't ready.

"You know what," Sun Devil head coach Graham asked. "It's not the players' fault, that's why they hire coaches, to get your guys ready to play. We didn't get our guys ready to play and the other team did."

As much as I've raved over the transformation the ASU football program has undergone in two years under Graham and his staff, this is unacceptable. When a program has 23 days to get ready for a game, to come out flat and unprepared (using the coach's own words) is bewildering.

"We kept talking all night 'it's been a while', but that's no excuse," senior safety Alden Darby said.

You're darn right, it's no excuse. Because it had been 32 days since Texas Tech had stepped on a football field for an actual game and 72 days since they'd won one.

ASU looked like they were in a fog all night. No sequence represented this more than at the end of the first half. The Devils were trailing 27-13, but had an impressive drive going. On a second and goal at the Texas Tech two-yard line and the clock running, Kelly took a sack, bringing up third down. ASU didn't have any timeouts left, but did have plenty of time to come to the line, spike the ball and kill the clock to set up for a field goal with just seconds remaining in the half.

Instead, after the second down play, the field goal team stormed on to attempt the kick, which Zane Gonzalez missed wide left from 24 yards. ASU had gone on a 17-play, 69-yard drive and came away with zero points because of a failure to recognize the game situation.

It got even more frustrating after the game, when nobody involved acknowledged that the ball could have been spiked.

"You can't take a sack," Graham said. "We call a timeout and tell 'em, 'don't take a sack', then you have to NASCAR field goal and you have to rush and we miss it."

No, you didn't have to go NASCAR field goal there, coach.

"That's one of those situations where I've got to be more aware of -- not take a sack when there is no timeouts and there are 30 seconds left on the clock," Kelly said. "I thought I saw a crease but I've got to be smarter in that situation and just throw it away."

Or spike the ball. That would have worked, too. The lack of awareness there will have you pull your hair out, but the Sun Devils wouldn't have won this game had they converted that field goal.

Texas Tech feasted on third down opportunities, converting on eight of their first nine. The Sun Devils used a similar blitz repeatedly, getting burned frequently. Texas Tech freshman quarterback Davis Webb threw for 178 yards on third down alone.

This one's painful, no doubt. There were two college football teams playing Monday night, and the Sun Devils laid an egg in a nationally-televised game they were favored to win by 16 points.

A look in the rear view mirror will show that Graham still has 18 wins in his first two years in Tempe. A glance toward the future will show that he's got one of ASU's strongest recruiting classes in years on the way.

But in the present, this is a bad way to end a great season.

Another Altoid, please.

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