For the better part of four hours last night, Todd Graham‘s future kept flashing before his eyes.
Over and over, his Arizona State football team kept reviving from near death, only to be knocked back down again by an up-tempo, high-octane Texas Tech attack.
By the time it was all over, his Sun Devil football team had staged a great rally, but ultimately succumbed to the relentless offensive attack of the Red Raiders that handed the Devils a 52-45 road loss.
And the future of the fifth-year head coach was growing dim.
That’s the ultimate price when you’re coming off of two losing seasons and just ran your non-conference record to 1-2 to start would has to be your season of redemption.
ASU came back from the brink more than once after falling behind 21-3 at the end of the first quarter and began to narrow the margin before allowing Texas Tech to score just before halftime to run the Raiders’ lead back up to 18 points to go into the locker room with a 35-17 lead.
In the third quarter, ASU started by closing the gap to 11 points, but Texas Tech built it back to 18 at 42-24. Then ASU closed it again to 11 points before the Raiders stretched it again, this time using a field goal to increase the lead to 14.
The Devils scored 21 points in the third quarter to pull to within seven points, and N’Keal Harry tied the game up at 45-45 as the fourth quarter began, scoring on a 21-yard touchdown pass from starting quarterback Manny Wilkins.
That deadlock continued until there was just 1:56 left on the game clock. That’s when Raiders’ Dylan Cantrell scored from three yards out on an end-around play to make it 52-45, the score that would stand the rest of the way.
A final drive by ASU was sabotaged by a five-yard penalty and then a quarterback sack that pushed the Sun Devils back to their own 15-yard line. An incomplete pass on fourth-and-forever brought the high-scoring contest to a final conclusion. A one-hour rain delay to start the game, combined with three hours and 39 minutes of actual game time, made for a very long night for both teams.
And an even longer trip home from Lubbock, Texas.
It wasn’t that the Sun Devils didn’t succeed in many aspects of the game. They piled up 494 total yards of offense and Wilkins completed 27 of 41 pass attempts for 326 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
Wilkins’ main target for the evening was the sophomore from Chandler High School, wide receiver N’Keal Harry, who caught 13 of Wilkins’ passes for a career-high 148 yards. Kyle Williams, another sophomore, also got his share with seven receptions for 111 yards.
But the Sun Devil secondary struggled to defend against the Raiders’ passing game and had no answer for Nic Shimonek, who was making just his second start at Texas Tech after transferring in from Iowa in 2014. The 6’3″ senior had passed for 318 yards by halftime and finished with 543 of the teams’ total 615 yards of offense – and a total six passing touchdowns .
The ASU ground game still wasn’t showing the kind of explosiveness Graham has been hoping would emerge, but Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard combined to hit the 100-yard mark, with Ballage picking up 56 yards and a touchdown and Richard contributing 53 yards and one TD. The Devils finished with 168 rushing yards.
Ballage didn’t have nearly the kind of game he enjoyed last year against the Raiders, when he tied an NCAA record with eight touchdowns in a single game.
And last year it was a similar high-scoring affair, with the combined total hitting 123 points. But ASU managed to come out on top, 68-55, in the game played at Sun Devil Stadium.
While ASU arguably played its best game so far this season, when you’re carrying the baggage that comes with back-to-back losing seasons, the only thing that really matters is whether you’re winning ball games. And whether you can still pull out a respectable season.
That possibility is fading by the week as the Sun Devils begin preparation for their Pac-12 opener next week against Oregon. Without the padding that normally comes with non-conference wins, there will be no margin for error going forward.
Oregon is 3-0 and averaging 56 points a game. The specter of a third straight losing season is beginning to loom large.
And the fork ’em fan base is growing increasingly uneasy.
(Photo: Texas Tech Athletics)