What was pegged as Arizona State's biggest opportunity to impress voters this season turned into an utter embarrassment as asinine mistakes and terrible tackling doomed the Sun Devils in a 62-27 loss to UCLA.
"Obviously, that was embarrassing," head coach Todd Graham said. "The standard that we set here was not met ... we just made a lot of catastrophic mistakes tonight."
The atmosphere on Thursday night in Sun Devil Stadium was electric, as the blackout crowd created a definite home field advantage for Arizona State. The crowd only grew rowdier as the Sun Devils opened up a 17-6 lead over the Bruins. Mike Bercovici played well in his first start under center, throwing a pair of first half touchdowns.
After Bercovici's gorgeous pass to a well-covered Cameron Smith for a 29-yard score to cap off a 75-yard drive put the Sun Devils up two scores, Arizona State looked to their defense to continue to slow down Brett Hundley and the UCLA offense. Arizona State's young defense performed well in the first quarter, holding the Bruins offense to a pair of field goals. When the Sun Devils held UCLA to a field goal after D.J. Foster fumbled at his own 31-yard line, the impression was the defense had taken that long-awaited "next step."
That impression was wrong.
On a 3rd and 2 from their own 20, Hundley found Eldridge Massington on a five-yard hitch route that was meant to pick up the first down. Five Arizona State missed tackles later and Massington was dancing in the end zone after an 80-yard score, one of four UCLA touchdowns on the night that spanned 80 yards or more. Running back Paul Perkins also had an 81-yard rush on a late UCLA touchdown drive.
But that wasn't where the camel's back broke. No, the momentum of the game didn't swing completely out of the Sun Devils' favor until the end of the first half.
An 11-play, 58-yard drive set the Sun Devils up with good position at the UCLA 17-yard line with under a minute left in the first half. Trailing 20-17, just a field goal would have sent the Sun Devils into the locker room on a good note. But poor playcalling and Bercovici's inexperience came to the forefront. On first down, Bercovici took a questionable quarterback draw and lost two yards. Then on the next play, Bercovici made the biggest mistake of his career to date, throwing a brutal interception to UCLA's Ishmael Adams. Adams ran the ball back 95 yards for a Bruin touchdown and rather than heading into the locker room at halftime tied or in the lead, Arizona State ended the first half down 27-17.
On the interception that changed the tone of the game, both Bercovici and Graham acknowledged its impact, with Graham calling it "the biggest play of the game."
"Unacceptable on my behalf. 100 percent credit on me," Bercovici said. "I gotta understand the situation ... It's a learning experience. I'll never do it again."
Having outplayed the Bruins but still trailing 27-17, Arizona State came out flat in the second half, and the game quickly spiraled out of control.
On the first play of the second half, Hundley found wideout Jordan Payton for an 80-yard UCLA score that upped their lead to 34-17. A field goal on their next drive gave the Sun Devils an ounce of positive play to work off of, but all momentum that ASU had was immediately zapped when Adams scored on another long play, this time on special teams. Adams took Alex Garoutte's kickoff back 100 yards to the house, ducking and weaving his way through a seemingly-helpless Sun Devil tackling unit. Adams, who totaled 296 all-purpose yards on the night, gave the Bruins a commanding 48-20 lead.
The fourth quarter of this game was unnecessary, as UCLA would've been declared winner by knockout after Adams' kickoff return score. But this isn't boxing, and UCLA didn't stop scoring. The Bruins padded on two more touchdowns on Graham's defense in the fourth quarter, embarrassing both Arizona State players and their head coach.
"I thought we even got tired. We only played 58 plays on defense and we struggled to get lined up at times. Tackling was atrocious."
Wasn't there mentally and Really embarrassed myself. Never again
— kweishi Brown (@kwesh_the_great) September 26, 2014
Just wanna apologize to the sun devil nation for the way I played tonight ...
— Damarious Randall (@RandallTime) September 26, 2014
At the end of the night, the Sun Devils lost 62-27, but the final score wasn't a result of poor play as a collective but rather crucial mistakes. The Sun Devils turned the ball over four times, and Arizona State failed to force any of their own.
"They couldn't stop us," Graham said. "The only one who stopped us was us."
In defeat, Bercovici set Sun Devil single-game records for both attempts (68) and completions (42). The redshirt junior threw for an impressive 488 yards and three touchdowns, but positives were hard to find after the loss.
"At the end of the day it's what the score is, and we weren't one point ahead or more," Bercovici said. "Positives are wins to me."