How does a team gain 626 yards of total offense, convert 38 first downs and run almost 50 more plays than the other team over the course of a game and still lose? The last time the Sun Devils had 38 first downs in a game was 1981 and 105 plays run by the Sun Devils is a new school record and yet the maroon and gold fell flat.
But they beat the Bruins in all of those categories. So what went wrong? The answer is quite simple, turnovers and giving up huge chunks of yardage at a time on defense, which can be attributed to awful tackling.
"Sometimes things don't go your way, and the way you react to adversity let's you know how the team is going to be," safety Jordan Simone said. "When things start to go bad we just have to pick it up."
Arizona State did not pick it up Thursday night, it only got worse as time wore on. The Sun Devils gave up five plays over 80 yards in length. Early in the second quarter, Brett Hundley completed an 80-yard pass to Eldridge Massington for a touchdown. He found Jordan Payton on an 80-yard touchdown to begin the third quarter as well.
It wasn't what fans have come to expect from Arizona State, but a combination of terrible tackling and an unfamiliar and an inexperienced quarterback certainly played into the formula. Todd Graham went as far as to call the tackling "atrocious" and the mistakes "catastrophic."
"We made some simple mistakes that cost us big time," Simone said. "We had mental errors and critical errors and stuff that we can't have. We just got to get back to playing Sun Devil defense."
The Bruins also did it on the ground and on special teams too. Paul Perkins ran 81 yards from the UCLA four-yard line to the Arizona State 15-yard line. Ishmael Adams did it twice with a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown right before halftime and a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown just five minutes into the third quarter to put UCLA up 41-20.
The 95-yard touchdown was the kicker. Just moments earlier, it seemed as if the Sun Devils would head into halftime tied at 20. Despite Arizona State ending up down 27-17 a few seconds later, Graham was still pleased with the offensive production.
"We moved the ball up and down the field all night," Graham said. "The only one that stopped us was us."
The Sun Devils also turned the ball over four times, which led to 17 points for the Bruins. UCLA defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes forced a D.J. Foster fumble, which was picked up by linebacker Eric Kendricks, but Arizona State held them to a field goal. Early in the second quarter with the Sun Devils driving past midfield up 17-13, safety Anthony Jefferson picked off Mike Bercovici at the 23-yard line.
"The difference in the game from my standpoint was just very very very bad ball security," Graham said.
Bercovici fumbled early in the middle of the third quarter added insult to injury. UCLA took full advantage on a 1-yard run by Nate Starks two plays later to put the Bruins into the end zone.
Graham preached all week that the keys to beating the Bruins included ball security and winning defensive battles, Arizona State managed to fail miserably at both. It overshadowed an offensive performance that was better than it might have looked at first sight as Bercovici moved the ball well down the field at points. It's also worth mentioning that Arizona State also had to air it out most of the second half which padded the stats.
Even if the offense played a decent game paper, the inexperience showed through on the field and the Sun Devils had too many of what Graham likes to call "critical errors."
He also gave credit to UCLA for taking advantage of the Sun Devils poor play.
"We made a lot of inexperienced mistakes," Graham said. "They made the plays and made the big plays. They won explosive (plays), they won ball security so obviously the big plays was a big factor. Everything we needed to do we didn't do tonight."