When Todd Graham agreed to coach one last game with the Arizona State Sun Devils, this wasn’t the farewell he had in mind.
ASU’s 52-31 2017 Hyundai Sun Bowl loss to No. 24 NC State was marred by familiar shortcomings; missed tackles, mental mishaps and key mistakes during crucial offensive possessions.
The contest began, however, with something relatively new for ASU: a fumble. Sophomore wideout Kyle Williams negated a nice gain on an early screen play by coughing up the ball and giving the Wolfpack possession minutes after kicking the ball off.
Blown coverage downfield and a quick rush from NC State tailback Nyheim Hines allowed the Wolfpack to grab a quick 7-0 lead. ASU could get nothing going offensively during the first quarter and was punished once again as Hines would find the end zone during the opening moments of the second to double the NC State advantage.
Freshman kicker Brandon Ruiz managed a field goal and sophomore wideout N’Keal Harry carried the team on his back with four receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown to cut the ASU deficit to 21-10, but the mistakes would rear their ugly head again -- this time, from the coaching staff.
Graham dialed up a surprise onside kick with just over two minutes remaining that was easily scooped up by the NC State special teams unit. As they had for the majority of the first half, the Wolfpack scored quickly and took a 28-10 lead into the break.
The Sun Devils had finally garnered a bit of momentum after a couple of positive plays to open the second half, but it was all erased when redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins misfired on a short throw and his pass was tipped high into the air and intercepted by NC State.
The Sun Devil defense held the Wolfpack to a field goal, but its offense failed to return the favor on the next drive. Wilkins fired a deep shot down the middle of the field looking for the end zone but no no avail; his receiver was draped in double coverage and the ball was intercepted.
NC State then methodically marched 80 yards on 12 plays and used seven minutes of the third quarter extend its lead to 38-10.
ASU’s miscues weren’t limited to any one specific area, as the entire performance seemed to display a myriad of season-long demons the Sun Devils had been battling.
ASU’s previously vaunted front seven unit — albeit missing Christian Sam — allowed 173 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground to the Wolfpack. The Sun Devils’ secondary struggles continued in El Paso, allotting 318 yards through the air to NC State.
Even as Arizona State pulled within two scores with a deep touchdown reception from Kyle Williams and a successful onside kick, its third down defense ultimately let it down. On a third and seven just beyond field goal range, Finley connected on a deep pass down the right sideline that essentially iced the game for NC State with just a few minutes remaining.
The Wolfpack scored just a couple plays later to extend its lead back to 45-24. ASU would answer with a 20 yard touchdown heave to Frank Darby, but NC State recovered the onside kick and scored once more to cement a 52-31 victory.
The loss in West Texas was an underwhelming finale that capped an erratic 2017 campaign for Arizona State football, one that was bookended by disaster and left behind a laundry list of difficult questions — questions that negated the brief moments of optimism that were few and far between for the past six months in Tempe.
Arizona State now begins the offseason in uncharted territory, lacking the administrative stability, star power at running back and defensive identity it has possessed in years past.
One thing is clear: If Sun Devil fans wanted one last hurrah from the winningest head coach in school history and two of the biggest offensive stars at ASU in recent memory: they weren’t going to find it. The Sun Devils’ season-long mistakes stole the show instead.