LUBBOCK — Often times, the sequel never lives up to the original.
Yet Arizona State’s rematch against Texas Tech Saturday night was nothing short of spectacular — full of dramatic runs, extreme emotions and drastic implications for the future.
It was college football at its very best.
The Arizona State Sun Devils (1-2) fell just inches short of an epic comeback during their 52-45 loss at the hands of the Texas Tech Red Raiders (2-0) Saturday night at AT&T Jones Stadium in Lubbock, Texas.
The loss was an emotional one for the Sun Devils, who fell just short of an 18-point come-from-behind victory against TTU. Following the game, ASU’s vocal leader -starting quarterback Manny Wilkins - described what the team is going through after coming up short in an incredible second-act with the Red Raiders.
“You know obviously it hurts, it sucks,” Wilkins said. “When you come back like that we could’ve won the game, we should’ve won the game.”
Before the comeback culminated in a couple of fatal missteps on the final drive, both teams experienced an incredible first thirty minutes.
Over 550 yards of total offense and seven combined touchdowns headlined a wild first half full of explosive plays, key mistakes and poorly-timed turnovers on both sides.
Wilkins and the ASU offense led a pair of impressive early drives on offense, but the Devils had only managed a single field goal from freshman placekicker Brandon Ruiz as the game headed toward the midway mark of the first quarter.
The Red Raiders took a while to find a rhythm on the offensive side of the ball, but once they did, they didn’t look back.
Senior quarterback Nic Shimonek led back-to-back 70-plus yard touchdown drives for the Red Raiders, completing 7-of-8 passes for 122 yards and two scores.
Trailing 14-3 and with momentum strongly favoring Texas Tech, the Sun Devils desperately needed a score on their ensuing drive to keep the contest within reach.
They didn’t come close.
On the first play of the drive, newly-anointed center sophomore Cohl Cabral sent a bad snap hurdling into the ASU backfield, causing the Sun Devils to turn the ball over on their own 22-yard line.
On third-and-17 during the following TTU drive, Shimonek connected with Dylan Cantrell for a 29-yard score, increasing the Red Raiders’ lead to 21-3.
Four Texas Tech penalties and a couple of incredible individual-effort plays by Wilkins and senior running back Kalen Ballage guided the Sun Devils to an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to decrease the deficit to 21-10.
The Devils fell just an inch short of allowing the Red Raiders offense to extend its lead once again with just a few minutes remaining in the first half, but TTU running back Desmond Nisby gave ASU a lifeline by fumbling at the goal line.
Wilkins and Ballage then teamed up for another long scoring drive, traveling 75 yards on five plays and using senior tailback Demario Richard to punch it in the end zone.
The Sun Devils had struggled mightily on the offensive side of the ball through their first two games, but a matchup against one of the worst defenses in the country was all they needed to get the unit jump-started.
Graham and the Sun Devils had been waiting for it.
“Offensively we had the came we wanted to have,” Graham said. “N’Keal Harry did some great things, we looked like a read-zone offense. You know, we were coming out in a triple and throwing touchdowns down the sideline.”
At times, though, key mistakes — a botched special teams play, a bad snap, a missed assignment in the secondary — would ultimately negate the brilliant performance of the offense.
Arizona State later had a punt blocked with just over a minute to go in the first half, leading to Shimonek’s fifth touchdown pass — a 14 yard strike to Cantrell to extend the TTU lead to 35-17 to close out the half.
The Devils quickly struck again on offense during their second drive of the second-half, marching 73 yards on five plays in just under 90 seconds to decrease the deficit to 35-24.
As was often was the case on Saturday night, however, the Red Raiders answered back immediately. Shimonek completed three passes of 15-plus yards, including a 28-yard score to the corner of the end zone to Derrick Willies on the next drive to give TTU a 42-24 advantage.
The ASU defense struggled in their first test against New Mexico State and followed it up by allowing the SDSU Aztecs to rush for 279 yards during week two. It’s been an uphill battle from the beginning for the young unit, and that continued into Saturday night.
Senior linebacker DJ Calhoun admitted the defense didn’t get the job done during the first thirty and explained that there was a lot at stake against the Red Raiders.
“We know we messed up in the first half,” Calhoun said. “We just capitalized on that. I’ve never really seen my team fight like this. This is our breaking point right here.”
Texas Tech would add a field goal on their next offensive drive, but the Sun Devils answered in a big way.
Wilkins carried the Sun Devils on yet another long scoring drive, adding three 15-plus yard completions of his own and capping the journey with a 9-yard fade score to sophomore Kyle Williams, moving the score to 45-38. The touchdown brought the Sun Devils within one score for the first time since the 2:40 mark of the first quarter.
Arizona State forced a three and out on the Red Raiders following drive and then mounted arguably their most important drive of the young season.
Richard tallied four productive carries to open the drive, setting up the ball at midfield for Wilkins and company to open up the playbook with the game on the line. Wilkins fired a shot down the sideline that was grabbed by Harry for 17 yards, then found the sophomore from Chandler, Arizona for 21 yards across the middle and a score.
After trailing by 18 at the half, Arizona State had knotted the score at 45-45 with just 9:52 to play.
At times the Devils looked completely lost on both sides of the ball, but Graham knew that confidence was always high in his camp.
“We thought our guys really felt like we were going to win that football game,” Graham said. “And to come back two different times down 18, I’m really proud of the effort.”
Then, a nearly eight-minute scoring drought ended when Shimonek led the Red Raiders 90 yards on 12 plays to throw a three-yard touchdown pass to Cantrell and secure a 52-45 lead with 1:55 to play.
The late score was the nail in the coffin for Arizona State, and it was part of a game-winning drive that Graham could do nothing but praise TTU for.
“We gotta give them credit,” Graham said. “They took the ball 90 yards to score, almost 90 yards on that last drive.”
With one last chance, Wilkins completed his first pass for a 12-yard gain to Jalen Harvey, but that was all the Sun Devils could muster. Two incomplete passes, followed by a false start and a 15-yard sack, set up a 4th-and-30 in which Wilkins heaved a deep ball to Harry that was just beyond his reach.
Saying that this game was an important one for Arizona State is a massive understatement.
After sneaking away with a victory against the New Mexico State Aggies and falling at home to the San Diego State Aztecs, Graham and company had everything to prove, as they headed to West Texas.
A coach planted squarely on the hot seat, a fanbase desperately yearning for a reverse of fortunes and a program that just hasn’t been the same since being dealt a crushing blow at the hands of Oregon State while making a push for the College Football Playoff in 2014.
Although the future of the program has yet to come into focus, one thing should remain abundantly clear as we venture into the fourth week of the 2017-18 campaign: the Devils desperately need to find a few victories this season, and Saturday night, they let a key one slip away from them.