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ASU Football: 5 Takeaways from the Cactus Bowl loss to West Virginia

Nearly a month away from the field wasn't enough for ASU to pull out a victory in the Cactus Bowl, falling to West Virginia 12 miles away from Sun Devil Stadium.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that seemed a fitting finish to Todd Graham's most-frustrating year in Tempe. A 43-42 defeat to West Virginia in the Cactus Bowl looked eerily similar to many of the losses Graham's Sun Devils have suffered in a season that opened with playoff expectations and finished under .500.

Ending the 2015 season at 6-7, ASU will limp into the offseason hoping its on-field struggles don't impact the final months of the 2016 recruiting cycle. With that said, what takeaways can we garner from the Cactus Bowl loss?

It's time to give the defensive backs some help

One of the calling cards of Todd Graham's defense is the constant pressure he likes to put on the opposing quarterback, and against West Virginia stuck to his guns and sent the house on multiple occasions. Graham's scheme included some varied coverages that matched up linebackers on receivers or running backs, but for the most part ASU relied on their boundary and field cornerbacks winning their one-on-one matchups.

West Virginia protected quarterback Skylar Howard valiantly, and Howard's receivers stepped up big time for the Mountaineers, torching the ASU secondary to the tune of a Cactus Bowl-record 532 yards and five touchdowns. Kweishi Brown and Lloyd Carrington found themselves playing catch up all night, and the two corners that had paced the ASU secondary this season ended their ASU careers having been on the wrong side of history.

As high as the highs for getting a sack or forcing fumble provide are, the lows from giving up chunk yards through the air all night warrant reconsideration of Graham's defensive philosophy.

Maybe not stranding the up-tempo blitzing defense he's become known for, but mixing up the scheme to at least give his corners some help when taking on legitimate deep threats like what West Virginia presented in Shelton Gibson and Ka'Ruan White.

Rushing attack missing one vital position

If you watched Stanford's demolition of Iowa in the Rose Bowl you undoubtedly caught a glimpse at the jumbo package that the Cardinal like to steamroll through defenses with. ASU isn't going to send nine offensive linemen out there for one play, but the consistent blocking that Stanford is able to get their running backs is partially responsible for the big play machine that Christian McCaffrey became this year and should be emulated more by other college football teams.

ASU's got two of its own big-play machines in Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, but relied too much on them breaking an early tackle to gain more than two or three yards up the gut.

Running from the zone read puts the running backs at the side of the quarterback, preventing them from having a lead blocker to open up those initial holes for Ballage and Richard to squeeze through en route to large gains.

When we open up spring camp and take a deeper look at who ASU will be trotting out there as its quarterback, it'll become more important to know whether they'll have the dual-threat ability to warrant running the zone read.

But with Mike Bercovici as the quarterback this season, ASU seemed much better fit just running the I-formation and giving its running back a fullback to lead block for him rather than make the defense account for a rushing quarterback that rarely runs.

ASU wants Wilkins to win the job

Speaking of ASU's next quarterback, I wrote earlier this season on how ASU was trying to get Wilkins some playing time just to take a look at what they have for next year, but how the Sun Devils used him in the bowl game seems to suggest that Graham has the redshirt freshman as his guy for at least the early part of spring camp.

Wilkins wasn't allowed to pass the ball, but was given opportunities to run the zone read and demonstrated that elite athleticism that made him such an interesting recruit for ASU.

Wilkins is the best athlete the Sun Devils have had at the quarterback position, and when thinking back on the rushing opportunities that Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici took advantage of from time to time, Wilkins has a chance to capitalize on more of those chances.

Obviously Graham wasn't going to throw Brady White or Bryce Perkins out there to ruin their redshirt season, but having now been in the program for two years and learning under Kelly and Bercovici, ASU clearly wants Wilkins to take that next step.

Lack of attempt on conversion haunts ASU

Whenever you put up 42 points it hasn't been a terrible day offensively. But ASU made its grandest mistake when it chose to not go for the two point conversion to stretch a five point lead to seven with a few minutes left to go?

Even if the two point try had not been good and the Sun Devils only led by five, they'd still have put themselves in position to win the game on a field goal if West Virginia scored again.

ASU opted to kick the extra point, took a six point lead, and lost by one.

Don't talk up your team too much, Todd

A head coach should always be able to voice his excitement for his team, but when Todd Graham called this 2015 Sun Devil squad the best team he'd ever had at ASU, it set the bar for a successful season only as high as the College Football Playoff or Rose Bowl appearance.

Coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons these were some lofty goals, but goals that the program had been envisioning under Graham nonetheless.

Now we see the 6-7 team that resulted, and even though a rational football fan who watched all of ASU's games would understand that a 12-1 season wasn't exactly fair to expect, the dismal campaign that did ensue was magnified that much because of the expectations Graham put on his team.

Graham's a coach who likes to walk the walk just as much as he talks the talk, but after a season where his team sunk back down to the depths of the Pac-12, it's probably best he stick to exceeding the expectations of others rather than not meet his own.