For three quarters, it was an ugly performance for Arizona State in Missouri. Turnovers, poor protection, special teams blunders and more put the Sun Devils in a 24-7 deficit.
Then, a funny thing happened. The team remembered how they spoke victory over the first two week's and mounted a comeback. While the rally ultimately fell just short in the 24-20 loss, the team was able to put themselves in a position to win.
Coming back from Columbia, the team will be bringing some reasons for optimism, as well as some costly lessons from which to learn.
Some Erickson Era demons still need exorcising
Through the opening 45 minutes of game time, the Sun Devils displayed every horrible tendency from the Dennis Erickson era.
There was a disastrous start to a road game. There were bad turnovers. There were failures on special teams. There were penalties.
While the first two games of the 2012 season provided a long overdue and exceedingly refreshing change from previous seasons, Saturday night proved that Todd Graham's work in overhauling the culture and mentality of Sun Devil football is far from over.
The 13-0 fourth quarter rally showed that this team is different. In the past, ASU would have folded. No longer. But even then, a shake-you-head error in the form of the botched extra point proved to be the difference.
Last year, a game like this would be "same ol' Devils". This year, it's a lesson to learn and a step from which to improve.
The wide receivers are still a mess
Earlier in the week, I wrote about how the Sun Devil wide receivers had yet to answer any of the questions that have surrounded the group all offseason long. After Saturday, more questions are added to the list.
Once again, 3-back Chris Coyle and the running backs were the team's primary receiving targets. The wide receivers gained more attention for their key drops during Saturday's game than for their production. Jamal Miles had four catches for 25 yards, Kevin Ozier had three for 21 and Rashad Ross had just a single catch for 16 yards, and that was it for the entire group. Ross in particular struggled, with a few drops, including a sure touchdown in the second half.
Coyle again led the team with five catches, but most of them were short receptions as the defense keyed on him as the clear No. 1 target. If no other wide receiving options are able to step up soon, the aerial game will soon be grounded.
Taylor Kelly has legitimate star potential
It's been a remarkable six weeks for redshirt sophomore Taylor Kelly.
At the outset of fall camp, he was an afterthought in the ASU quarterback battle. Then, he was a surprise contender before winning the starting job. Kelly then entered the season with a "game manager" perception, but based on how he's performed through the first three games, he's once again being underestimated.
He was magnificent in the team's first two games, posting the nation's seventh best passer rating while showing great playmaking ability with both his arm and his feet. Saturday, he showed flashes of true star potential in battling back from adversity on the road.
His numbers were not impressive: 14 of 23 for 178 yards, one touchdown and 59 yards rushing, with two interceptions and a lost fumble. But his resolve, composure, and clutch playmaking in the fourth quarter were.
This was not a "breakout" game for Kelly that made him a star, but it hints that such a game is not far off.
D.J. Foster needs more touches
Throughout most of the first half, the Sun Devil offense was terrible. They were held to just 27 yards before their final drive of the first half, when the switch to quick passes helped move the ball. The drive was capped by a 33-yard catch-and-run touchdown by true freshman DJ Foster.
The problem was that Foster only had five other touches the entire game.
Foster has shown throughout the first three weeks that his explosiveness, versatility and speed make him the most dangerous threat on ASU's offense. He's averaging 5.7 yards-per-carry with a pair of touchdowns, and is second on the team with eight receptions, averaging over 17 yards-per-catch.
Quite simply, Foster needs the ball more. A lot more.
Speaking of touches...paging Cameron Marshall
During Media Day, Todd Graham said that he envisioned giving Cameron Marshall—coming off an 18 touchdown season and spots on the Maxwell and Doak Walker Award watch lists—30 touches a game.
Through three games, Marshall has just 29.
Part of the reason has been the blowout nature of ASU's first two games. Part of it has been the success of Marion Grice and DJ Foster, and Marshall's also seen bench time after putting the ball on the ground. Yet, on Saturday, he had just four carries for 15 yards.
After ankle surgery during the offseason, there were some questions about injury issues when Marshall was shut down over the latter part of fall camp, and he's had a bit of a hamstring issue since then.
One thing is for sure: the team is surely better off when Marshall is in his familiar workhorse role.
Special teams is going to have a busy week of practice
Close competitive games often come down to special teams, and both ASU and Missouri proved that the "special" on Saturday was meant ironically. While the Tigers were missing three field goals and had a botched punt, ASU's were even worse.
The list of blunders on the Sun Devil side of the ledger is lengthy: Jamal Miles fumbled on a punt return that led to a Missouri touchdown, a bad snap on a punt was bobbled by Josh Hubner, and the ensuing 11-yard punt gave Missouri great field position on a touchdown drive, and most damning of all, holder Ryan Woods botched a snap on ASU's final touchdown. That kept the score at 24-20 and forced the Sun Devils to go for it on fourth and goal later in the quarter rather than knock in a chip shot field goal to tie the game.
Special teams coordinator Joe Lorig is going to have a lot of work to do this week.
The goal line offense needs re-evaluation
After Marion Grice had scored his second touchdown of the game to close the gap to 24-20, Missouri seemed to offer a strong response. They put together a 12-play drive to set up a 48-yard field goal. But after Andrew Baggett shanked the kick, the door was open for the Sun Devils to take the lead.
Thanks to a 24-yard Chris Coyel reception and two Tiger personal fouls, the Sun Devils were soon in the red zone, and soon found themselves faced with a second and goal from the Tiger one-yard line. Just three feet stood between the Sun Devils and a possible victory.
Out came Taylor Kelly, and in came Michael Eubank. During the first two games, Eubank had seen a lot of action in goal line situations to take advantage of his 6-foot-6, 233 pound frame. Typically, the play calling had consisted of designed Eubank runs. Missouri apparently took note.
On the first play, Eubank was stopped for no gain. On the next, he ran again and lost two yards. That forced a decisive fourth down play, and in came Kelly, whose pass was incomplete to Kevin Ozier.
There are a lot of reasons that ASU is 2-1 instead of 3-0. The goal line offense is one of them.