PASADENA, Calif — As redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins slowly followed his team into the tunnel Saturday night, resting his helmet on his forehead and raising his grass-stained sleeves in the air to hold up a pitchfork, a fan from a small collection gathering around Wilkins’ exit attempted to relay a message.
“We believe,” the fan said.
Wilkins and the Sun Devils, at some point during their 44-37 loss to the UCLA Bruins, must have too.
Maybe it was after they had managed 100 rush yards during the first quarter, or when they jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. Maybe it was when the team was so confident in its ability to run the ball that it did so after lining up five wide and had its quarterback leap into the end zone to cap a 16 yard score and retake the lead.
But when adversity struck, specifically a pick-six from UCLA’s Nate Meadors during the tail end of the first quarter, the Sun Devils’ belief fleeted and panic filled the void. The Bruins nearly equalized by the break and dominated the third quarter, leading to Arizona State getting away from very thing it had done best over the course of the last six quarters.
“We should’ve ran the ball into the end zone every time we got in the red zone.” ASU Head Coach Todd Graham said. “We get behind in the count and try to throw the ball and we kick field goals.”
The Sun Devils finished six for six in the red zone against UCLA, but settled for three points three times. A team that didn’t waiver when coming into Saturday’s matchup, rushing the ball 39 times during the first half against a Bruins’ defense that has been historically poor, abandoned its game plan and tried to force square pegs into round holes.
There were the passes to the still-recovering John Humphrey from the 11 yard line and the seam throw looking for 6 foot 7 receiver Curtis Hodges in the back of the end zone, or the deep shot down the sideline to N’Keal Harry on third and short during the Devils’ final drive.
All of these plays seemed to disrupt the rhythm of the ASU offense, and Graham knew it.
“My whole deal coming in was tempo,” Graham said. “We did that during the first half. Then I feel like we never got the tempo at the rate I wanted it to be.”
ASU’ offense lost its momentum, and aside from a blocked punt touchdown, was outscored 24-9 during the second half.
The end result was a loss that felt like many others sustained this year by the Sun Devils, a game that slipped away during a few key moments ASU was never able to recover from. The late comeback that fell short in Lubbock, the useless third quarter against San Diego State and the second-half collapse against the Cardinal in Palo Alto.
“Man, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have won this game,” senior defensive lineman Smallwood said. “We been saying that too often this year.”
Adversity struck Arizona State after a terrific start and the Sun Devils never recovered. They never regained the confidence and belief they instilled in their offense and let yet another game while on the brink of bowl eligibility slip through their fingers.
When Wilkins walked through the tunnel and received support for his effort and his team, it was clear the fanbase, if even just a sliver, still believes in the program’s ability to avoid another disastrous season. With a difficult road trip to Corvallis and a finale against a much-improved state rival on the docket, ASU had better rediscover that belief too.