TEMPE — It takes years of constant watering, fertilizing and care for bamboo culms to break the surface of the soil, but once it does, it grows rapidly. After the Sun Devils’ 27-24 loss to Colorado, first-year coach Kenny Dillingham made the connection between his program and bamboo.
“We’re playing winning football,” Dillingham said emphatically after the game. “But we’re not winning, which means we’re very, very close.”
When Arizona State finished its improbable 94-yard drive with a game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter against Colorado, it felt as if it were finally time for the Sun Devil’s to break the surface of the soil. It felt time for ASU to stamp its first statement win under Dillingham.
Sold-out Mountain America Stadium, packed with 54,086, was hoping it was time, too.
However, that time isn’t quite here.
Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders found receiver Javon Antonio for a gain of 43 on first down after a miscommunication in the secondary, setting up the Buffaloes game-winning field goal three plays later, which handed Arizona State its fifth consecutive loss.
Dillingham has been thrusted into the tumultuous situation of rebuilding the Arizona State football program, and is now 1-5 for the first time since 1942. But Dillingham is seeing the growth in his team even though they haven’t produced a win in over a month.
Arizona State out-gained Colorado by 97 yards of total offense, including 96 more passing yards, seven more total plays and led time of possession by nearly 10 minutes, yet still lost.
“I’ve been in this exact scenario,” he said, referencing his stint in Florida as an assistant coach under Mike Norvell. “Year one taking over a program, you just can’t find out how to win. Don’t know how to do it yet, you’re just finding a way. Every single time there’s an opportunity, you find a different way to lose. You don’t know when it’s gonna click.”
The injuries don’t help his case. Arizona State is down six linemen, down to just two linebackers, and has been playing the quarterback carousel since losing Jaden Rashada after week 2. Despite this, Dillingham doesn’t make excuses, he doesn’t care about the circumstances and he places responsibility on himself.
Quarterback Trenton Bourguet out-played Shedeur Sanders and the Sun Devil’s defense gave the team a chance to win, but still there are adjustments to be made.
Linebacker BJ Green said it’s the “little things” the team needs to change to get over the hump. “You got to harp on the little things like earlier in the week, practice, prep, pregame because during those big moments, it’s the little things that matter.”
There has been progress, however, and Dillingham put it into perspective.
“I think the last two games here, I would hope the fans could not only see the growth of the program and the direction we’re heading, but they can see the fight of our guys and they can see how it’s an advantage to have them (the fans) here.”
Is the Arizona State team that fought and clawed against then-No. 5 USC and led majority of the game against Colorado a better team than the one that gave an ugly viewing against Southern Utah week 1 and shut out against Fresno State week 3? Of course, but it takes time.
“There is zero doubt in my mind that we’re going in the right direction,” Dillingham said. “There is zero doubt in my mind that we’re going to win at a really, really high level here and I’m really excited for it. But the times of when that’s gonna happen, that’s just gonna happen when it happens.”
You go back to work and you compete to get better, better, better, better, better,” he said. “The bamboo that nobody can see is going to grow, very simple. You just can’t see it, but the growth is happening.”