Arizona will enter the College Football Playoff rankings next week as a top-10 team. The Wildcats finished 10-2 overall and 7-2 in conference, clinching the Pac-12 South Saturday afternoon.
But ASU had its chances to have those same credentials the Wildcats now have, and just missed.
The Sun Devils didn't leave Tucson with their third loss because Arizona's high-powered offense and suffocating defense kept Arizona State in check. ASU's defense made game-changing plays, and the Sun Devil offense out gained the Wildcats 380-333, running 29 more offensive plays than their rivals. But as the scoreboard reads 42-35, it wasn't enough. ASU had a multitude of opportunities, and wasted one too many.
"I hate to come in here and say we beat ourself, but we really did," coach Todd Graham said. "We did a lot of great things, but at the end of the day, we had our chances and didn't get it done."
It started on the Sun Devils' second drive, as Jaelen Strong worked his way open on a slant route, but Kelly's pass sailed over his head and ASU failed to convert the 3rd-and-5.
It happened again on ASU's next drive, as the Sun Devils found themselves with a 1st-and-goal from the Arizona 3-yard line. Kelly ran for two yards, then D.J. Foster was stuffed, followed by another wasted third down as Kelly didn't even reach the line of scrimmage on his second keeper. ASU ran the same play to Foster that they had on second down and the same result happened. Rather than run a bootleg, stretch play or even a power play with 6-foot-3, 220 pound Kalen Ballage, ASU opted to repeat what wasn't working, and the outcome didn't change. ASU's defense bailed its offense out with a scoop-and-score on the ensuing Arizona drive, but the missed opportunities on offense would continue to haunt the Sun Devils.
"We get the ball on the 1-inch line and can't score," Graham said. "That really hurt."
Kelly got a shot at quick redemption on ASU's next drive when Strong torched his man and was wide open deep down the field. If Kelly put the ball in a good spot for his 6-foot-3 receiver, Strong would've walked in with a Sun Devil touchdown. But Kelly overthrew him, and the drive stalled.
On the missed throws, Graham emphasized the impact it had on the Sun Devils.
"Killed us," he said. "We had two post patterns that were five yard behind them."
Even on the 50-yard completion that Kelly did make to Strong in the second quarter was an overthrow, and Strong had to dive to corral the ball, sustaining an injury as he hit the ground that would keep him out for the rest of the first half. While Strong bailed Kelly out on that play and again on the 3-yard touchdown that was also over his head, the ASU quarterback wasn't able to find a rhythm, continuing to make poor throws.
Kelly's overthrow of Cameron Smith would have been an ASU score if put within reach of the speedy receiver, as Smith had at least five yards of separation and nothing but green grass ahead. The missed throw led to a Sun Devil punt, a punt that was blocked by Arizona to set up a 21-yard Nick Wilson touchdown run.
In the second half, while ASU remained within striking distance of Arizona at all times, the Sun Devils continued to struggle, and Zane Gonzalez's miss of a 45-yard field goal ended ASU's first drive of the third quarter.
Even after Mike Bercovici came in and brought a spark to the Sun Devils, Arizona State still struggled to capitalize on opportunities. With a chance to tie the game, Bercovici threw an ill-advised pass that was picked off, and on the final drive of the fourth quarter, Bercovici didn't give his receiver a chance to make a play on the fourth down that ultimately ended ASU's hopes.
"Obviously they made some plays on defense, there are scholarship guys over there too making plays," Bercovici said. "But at the end of the day it's all about not turning the football over, so if we don't do that we probably could've had 21 points or more. So credit to their defense for stopping us, but we know that it's unacceptable to not put more points on the board."
Arizona deserves much credit for the win and the Wildcats have a strong chance at walking into Santa Clara, Calif. next week and upsetting the Ducks for the third time in a row. But Arizona State knows that it threw its chance at the Pac-12 South title away. On Friday, the Sun Devils were just a little off a little too much.