After winning their first seven games of the season, Texas Tech (8-5) entered Monday's National University Holiday Bowl showdown with Arizona State on a five game losing streak and without starting quarterback Baker Mayfield, who left the program shortly following the team’s regular season finale against Texas. But if the Sun Devils were expecting a walk in the park against an undermanned Texas Tech squad, they were in for a rude awakening.
Led by freshman Davis Webb, the Red Raiders quickly jumped ahead of Arizona State, marching 77 yards on the game's opening drive and a 6-0 lead on a one yard touchdown pass from Webb to Rodney Hall. But on an unusually frigid night San Diego, Webb and the Texas Tech offense were only warming.
Webb completed 28-41 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns in the win, leaving the Sun Devil defense and Head Coach Todd Graham at a loss for words.
"Defensively, I didn't feel like they did anything that we didn't prepare for," said Graham afterwards. "They just threw the ball over the top of us and we went in the game that was our single plan was to vertically cut the guys off. We were playing too high for most of the game. We just did a poor job."
Texas Tech totaled 484 yards of offense and converted 9 of 16 third down attempts, including their first seven, as they stormed out to a 21 point first half lead.
But despite trailing 27-6 midway through the second quarter, Arizona State had its opportunities to regain control.
Sophomore D.J. Foster, who started place of the injured Marion Grice for a third consecutive game, scored on a 20 yard touchdown run to narrow the gap. For Foster, who set a career-high with 132 yards on 20 carries, it marked his fifth consecutive game with a rushing touchdown.
The Sun Devils were able to come up with a rare first half stop against the Red Raider offense, giving Taylor Kelly and the Sun Devils one more chance to score before the end of the first half.
Unfortunately, Kelly was sacked for a loss of six on first and goal at the Texas Tech one yard line and then stuffed on a rush attempt, setting up a hurried field goal attempt by freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez that sailed wide left, sending the Sun Devils to the locker room down 14 at halftime.
"You can't take a sack," remarked Graham. "We call a timeout at tell them, 'Don't take a sack.' Then you have to go NASCAR field goal and you have to rush it and we miss it. That's poor management on our part and we had to burn timeouts early because we couldn't get lined up. They were going fast and the tempo was a major issue."
Kelly and the Sun Devil offense tried to atone for their mistake by opening the second half on a six play, 79 yard scoring drive capped off by a Kelly 44 yard touchdown run to pull within seven. But Texas Tech returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, pulling away for good and diffusing the Sun Devil attack.
"I really thought we would take the opening drive and go down and score and make it a seven point game," said Graham. "We do that and then they run the kickoff back for a touchdown which is just - we can't have that. We've had too much of that this year and it's very disappointing.
"We have a lot of things to work on special teams, that will be dealt with immediately and that will be something I take a personal interest in. That has killed our team. We've lost three ballgames this year because of that and it was a major contributor today."
Kelly, who was under pressure all night by the Red Raider defense, finished the game 16-29 with 125 yards and one interception. The junior, who was sacked three times, rushed for a career-high 167 yards but ultimately came up short in the loss.
"We didn't protect our quarterback probably as bad as I've seen in a game," added Graham. "We had guys running off the edge completely unblocked. We had more mental errors, which has everything to do with preparation. They were running simple stunts and we knew they were going to do those things.
"Lots of work to do. It was about as ugly a game - offensively and defensively - I give their defense a lot of credit. We couldn't do anything consistently offensively tonight."
With the loss, the Sun Devils fall to 0-4 all-time in the Holiday Bowl. But while the bitter taste of defeat lingers, Graham insists it doesn’t sour an otherwise remarkable season by the Sun Devils.
"Again, I want to thank our Sun Devil fans for coming out strong and I think there was a tremendous atmosphere and I want to thank those seniors," said Graham. "It's a great time to be a Sun Devil' a lot of things going on. Great recruiting class we're putting together.
“These guys set a legacy of 10 wins and Pac-12 South champions, so anything less than 11 wins (next year), will be a disappointment."