SAN DIEGO -- Cursed! Cursed, I tell ya!
Make it three years in a row that the loser of the Pac-12 championship game has gone on to have an uninspiring performance in the bowl season. In 2011 it was the waiver-approved UCLA Bruins who fell to Oregon in the title game and then dropped a 20-14 contest to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Last year, it was the Bruins again who lost to Stanford in the title game and then got stomped by Baylor 49-26 in the Holiday Bowl.
The latest Pac-12 team to catch a vicious strand of shootium self em footseeitus is the Arizona State Sun Devils who, as head coach Todd Graham said, picked the last game to play their worst game of the season. The Sun Devils watched Texas Tech jump out to a 27-13 halftime lead and were never able to gain traction in a 37-23 loss in the National University Holiday Bowl.
Whether a title game hangover actually does exist is probably more fodder than fact. But Graham wasn’t interested in excuses. Rather, he and his coaching staff shouldered the brunt of the blame.
“It’s not the players’ fault, that’s why they hire coaches, to get your guys ready to play,” Graham said. “We didn’t get our guys ready to play and on the other hand the other team did I was embarrassed for our fans that showed up today that we did such a poor job of having our guys prepared to play. I love these players, tremendous group of seniors. Guys gave us everything they had. Really proud of them. Absolutely zero excuses. We just didn’t show up as a coaching staff and didn’t have our guys prepared to play.”
Of course, there is something to be said for Texas Tech hearing all week how great a team Arizona State was and how out of hand this game might get.
“Everybody was picking them,” said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury. “They were one of the top 15 teams in the country, we knew that sentiment going in and the kids responded well. They felt it all week. It was a celebration of Arizona State but we wanted them to know that we were here, too.”
Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb certainly made his presence felt. He threw four first-half touchdowns -- matching a Holiday Bowl record for passing touchdowns in a game -- while completing 28 of 41 passes for 403 yards. All-American tight end Jace Amaro was the recipient of eight of those passes for 112 yards. Jakeem Grant caught two of Webb's four touchdowns.
“Going out, beating a top-15 team as your last game when everyone had you losing by 20 points initially is something to be proud of,” Amaro said. “We knew we were a great team this whole year. We knew how great we could be and I think we proved it tonight on national television.”
On the flip side, ASU’s defense didn’t look good in HD, SD or in person. The Sun Devils were gutted by Webb & Co. as Texas Tech scored touchdowns on four of its first five possessions and had six plays of 20 yards or more in the first half.
Playing without injured running back Marion Grice, the Sun Devils offense got off to a sluggish start -- though it did finish with 287 yards on the ground. That was mostly because quarterback Taylor Kelly was pressured all night and had little time to throw. He was just 5-of-7 for 14 yards in the first half and the Sun Devils gained just 181 yards to Texas Tech’s 352. They settled for a pair of Zane Gonzalez field goals in the first quarter and finally got a touchdown from D.J. Foster midway through the second quarter.
“He’s one of the top scorers in the country and he’s a guy we miss,” Graham said of Grice. “D.J. was a little banged up too. But we didn’t protect our quarterback. We took too many negative-yardage plays. We just didn’t play well and I think that had a lot to do with Texas Tech and the energy they were playing with. This game is meant to be played with great passion and you gotta bring it every single game. They brought it. They were the more passionate team today and, again, it’s a disappointment for our fans.”
Just when it seemed like ASU could grab some momentum, something catastrophic would happen. Case in point: a mismanaged final drive of the first half -- that had the Sun Devils with first-and-goal at the 1-yard line -- yielded no points. Then the Sun Devils marched the opening kickoff of the second half down for a touchdown, only to watch Reginald Davis return the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.
The first-half deficit was too much to overcome.
“The worst half of football we have played defensively all year,” Graham said. “We just didn’t have them prepared. Seven critical errors in the first half we didn’t see anything, really, we didn’t see in practice. We didn’t come prepared to play, and that’s our job as coaches.”