LUBBOCK, Texas – As the fourth-down pass flew through the West Texas rain, coach Todd Graham followed the flight of the ball. Once it landed incomplete, he took off his headset, holding it in his left hand.
For the first time this season, Arizona State showed something Saturday night. It wasn’t enough to produce a win. Not on the road. Not against Texas Tech’s high-powered offense, but it was something. Perhaps enough to provide hope.
Saturday’s 52-45 loss here sank the Sun Devils to 1-2. That’s their worst start since Bruce Snyder’s 1999 team started with the same record. That team finished with six wins. Even with Saturday’s strong finish, this group appears miles from such a number, especially with a difficult Pac-12 schedule about to kick in, one that starts with seven consecutive games against teams ranked or receiving votes in last week’s AP poll.
But maybe this was a start.
“Our guys really felt like they were going to win that football game,” Graham said.
Non-conference truths: ASU has issues on both sides. Special teams are shaky and key play-makers on both sides (receiver John Humphrey missed Saturday’s contest with a knee injury, senior rush linebacker Koron Crump left it on crutches) are missing.
The best fans can hope is that the small steps lead to leaps, close losses lead to wins. This was a step. ASU’s best offensive performance. A team showing resilience, rallying from deficits of 21-3, 35-17 and 42-24 to put itself in position to win.
That doesn’t excuse the result, but for a stretch this one appeared headed for a different level of ugliness, the kind that shatters confidence. ASU fought through it.
“For us to come back and show heart like that shows a lot,” senior linebacker DJ Calhoun said. “You just make mistakes and keep on learning.”
Graham grew up about 350 miles from here. In some ways, this is his backyard. Not long after his arrival in the winter of 2011, Graham pledged to play more games in his home state, a plan to help recruiting.
It hasn’t gone great. In 2015, a season that began with much hype, Texas A&M beat ASU in Houston. Last year the Sun Devils had to rally to beat Texas-San Antonio. This one didn’t start off so well.
First a thunderstorm delayed kickoff for an hour. Then Texas Tech rained down on ASU. The Red Raiders bolted to a 21-3 first-quarter lead. After the Sun Devils pulled within 21-17, the Red Raiders scored the last 14 of the half to lead 35-17.
The last touchdown was a gift, coming after ASU lined up in an odd formation on a punt. Ja’Deion High bolted through the line and blocked Michael Sleep-Dalton’s punt, giving Texas Tech a short field.
In the second half, ASU was a different team.
This was predictable in some ways. Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury joins Graham on the hot seat for a reason. The Red Raiders score points. They also give them back. And so it unfolded in front of 58,547 fans.
“When you have a chance to bury a team like we did, you gotta bury them,” Kingsbury said.
ASU found an offensive rhythm. Junior quarterback Manny Wilkins hit sophomore receivers Kyle Williams (seven catches, 111 yards, two touchdowns) and N’Keal Harry (13, 148, 1). Senior Demario Richard provided tough inside running.
A Williams 9-yard touchdown catch made it 45-38 late in the third quarter. A Harry 21-yarder tied it with 9:52 left.
But Texas Tech (2-0) rediscovered its spark. Taking possession with 6:26 left, Nic Shimonek led the Red Raiders 90 yards in 10 plays. Dylan Cantrell’s 3-yard run with 1:55 left provided a 52-45 lead.
ASU ran out of answers.
“Obviously, it hurts,” said Wilkins, who completed 27 of 41 for 326 yards and three touchdowns. “It sucks. To come back like that, we should’ve won the game.”
Texas Tech rolled up 615 yards, averaging 7.8 per play. Shimonek completed 37 of 50 for 543 yards and six touchdowns. For much of the contest, the Red Raiders moved the ball with ease.
After the game, Graham said he talked to the Sun Devils as usual in the locker room. But this time, players also stood up and addressed the team. Graham said that never has happened before. It showed him something.
“This team’s definitely together,” Graham said.
AS IT UNFOLDED: Game Day: ASU falls short against Texas Tech
Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at [email protected]. Follow him at Twitter.com/DougHaller. Download and subscribe to the ASU Pick Six Podcast.