The evidence was left all over the field at Sun Devil Stadium on Thursday night.
On one sideline was a team playing to keep its Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff hopes alive. The other featured a team riding a three-game losing streak.
And while the lesser team may have played good enough to hang in this game for three quarters, the final 15 minutes showed just how wide the gap is between this year’s Arizona State Sun Devils and the Pac-12 elite.
“I am just really disappointed, especially for our seniors,” said head coach Todd Graham after the 49-26 loss. “It was their last game here and we just self-destructed, so it was really frustrating. We had every opportunity to be successful tonight but we made too many mental errors.”
Those mental errors are nothing new for Arizona State (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12). Graham’s team has shot itself in the foot time and again in each contest throughout this four-game skid, and while they avoided (for the most part) some crucial mistakes early on Thursday, a regression back to the mean was all-too-predictable.
There was the conversion allowed on first-and-40, a 24-yard touchdown pass on second and long, and a botched two-point conversion attempt where the Sun Devils tried to get a little too cute.
The Utah Utes outplayed Arizona State, and it really wasn’t all that close. This is the new normal for the Sun Devils.
"We allowed them to convert on first-and-40, which I have never seen anyone do before,” Graham said. “That was pretty tough. We blew several coverages and we could have won the football game but the two turnovers killed us.”
Long gone is the football team that started the season 5-1.
The offensive play-calling is predicated around misdirection and trickery. Defensively, the Maroon and Gold secondary can be picked apart at will.
“I took some critical sacks and had some critical interceptions down in the red zone,” said quarterback Manny Wilkins. “I think that’s one thing that we pride ourselves on, scoring in the red zone, whether it’s a touchdown or a field goal. That’s a poor part on my job, and I have to live and learn and grow from it.”
The players and coaching staff will tell you that three or four of their five losses could have just as easily been victories, if not for a couple of turnovers here and a few bad decisions there.
But the fact of the matter is, Graham’s team reached it’s ceiling back in September. They were bound to come back to Earth, and while the fall may have been steeper and more sudden than we were expecting, it is not all that surprising.
This is a young team that has suffered injury after injury, and that reality is now being reflected in the win-loss column. Brighter days are surely ahead, but as Arizona State walked off of Frank Kush Field for the final time this year, one couldn’t help but feel the season slipping away.
"We’re not done,” says Graham. “We have two games left and we have to get this team bowl-eligible.”
The Sun Devils now need to win one of their final two games, both of which will be on the road, in order to obtain that elusive sixth victory to qualify for a bowl.
With what this team has shown throughout the past few weeks, getting them there will be Graham’s toughest job yet.