Two-loss streak a turning point for ASU football

It was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

A few weeks ago, ASU suffered a backbreaking loss to Oregon, a game in which the Ducks posted 43 points before the second quarter was even a third of the way over. The Devils offensively couldn’t handle a speedy defense, and were outmatched defensively once Will Sutton left with an injury.

The loss, to a certain extent, was to be expected. ASU was playing one of the best rushing teams in the country without their best run defender. They also were playing one of the speediest defenses in the country in perfect weather conditions, a near disaster for a freshman quarterback.

From there, it seemed like the Devils received a wake-up call: This is what’s it’s like to be a title contender. It wasn’t a loss to be devastated by, especially considering what the Ducks do consistently to their opponents.

They couldn’t have expected what happened the next week.

ASU Quarterback Taylor Kelly during the game against UCLA. (Connor Radnovich/DD)

If the Oregon loss was backbreaking, last week’s loss to UCLA was heartbreaking. The Devils started the game with a chip on their shoulder, immediately jumping out to a two-touchdown lead. From there, the game became much more interesting.

After trailing by nine with less than 10 minutes to play in the game, Taylor Kelly went into takeover mode. He led drives to score first a field goal and second a touchdown with 90 seconds to play in the game.

That’s when the wheels fell off.

With less than two minutes to play in the game, the Devils gifted the Bruins with a 60-yard drive, ending with a Ka’imi Fairbairn 33-yard field goal to clinch a win for UCLA.

Now, I’m not writing this narrative to haunt Sun Devil fans, despite it being the week of Halloween. Instead, I write with a single thought in mind:

ASU is at a crossroads.

Last year, the Devils stood at a stoic 5-1, beating teams they should by out-talenting and simply outplaying them. By the middle of the season, it seemed like a foregone conclusion ASU would be the Pac-12 South representative in the Conference Championship. As we all know, it didn’t work out that way.

Let’s be clear: this is not last year’s team. Todd Graham made that sharply evident in last week’s postgame press conference.

There is reason to believe, though, that this team understands the importance of their next few games.

The South division is wide open. At this point in the year, USC and UCLA have as many conference losses as ASU does. A little bit of a run over the remaining weeks could put any of these teams in championship contention.

Which fast-forwards us to this weekend’s game against Oregon State. The Devils are on a couple-game skid. They’ve been punched in the mouth enough times to last a few months. There aren’t any ‘gimme’ games any more –- Washington State last year was evidence of that. Three of the next four games are against BCS Top 25 opponents, all of which are on the road.

So I pose the million-dollar question: Who are the Devils?

Are they the team that embarrassed Utah in Tempe? Are they the team that was a couple plays away from a road win at Mizzou? Are they the team that fought back from a two-score deficit to take a lead late in a game? Are they the team that started 5-1, destined for a top bowl game?

Or are they something else?

Are they the team that has literally no answer to a top team, both offensively or defensively? Are they the team that lets an early, two-touchdown lead vanish? Are they the team that allows 43 and 45 points in back-to-back weeks? Are they the team that sees the game in their control, only to let it slip through their fingers?

At this point, I honestly don’t know the answer to these integral questions. What I do know, though, is that this long road ahead starts with Oregon State on Saturday, a team that’s struggling in their own right.

With 1:33 left at Sun Devil Stadium last Saturday, it was complete bedlam. As time expired, it was complete devastation.

It was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

Can they seize the moment?