Arizona State's 37-34 loss to Notre Dame Saturday closed a four-game stretch of marquee games for the Sun Devils with a harsh lesson: They are not yet among the nation's upper echelon.
For the second time upon entering the rankings, the Sun Devils were showcased on a prime-time network broadcast. And for a second time, they fell short.
At July's Pac-12 media day, head coach Todd Graham said this run of Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame defined his team's "Any Challenge" motto.
The Sun Devils finished a respectable 2-2 in that run, but each step closer to joining college football's elite was followed by a step back.
Disappointment on the biggest stages has been a recurring problem for Arizona State in its recent history. From the end of Bruce Snyder's tenure to Dirk Koetter then Dennis Erickson, the Sun Devils wilted when the lights were brightest.
Among Graham's responsibilities since arriving at Arizona State was uprooting the cause of previous teams' failures.
However, one of the most critical problems that plagued past Sun Devils teams arose Saturday, as they were victims to self-inflicted errors.
Arizona State gave up three turnovers, none bigger than quarterback Taylor Kelly's interception that Dan Fox returned for a Fighting Irish touchdown with just a minute, eight seconds remaining.
"To come in and turnover the ball over three times, that was the difference in the game," Graham said in his postgame press conference, per the Sun Devils' official Twitter account. "You can't turn the ball over three times against a good team and win."
Turnovers and special teams gaffes were similarly troubling in a Week 4 loss at Stanford.
Defense was also a recurring issue through the Sun Devils' last four games. Notre Dame's 37 points were right on par with the per-game average Arizona State gave up during this stretch: 37.5.
The Irish's output came despite Tommy Rees completing just 17 of his 38 attempts and ball-carriers averaging just 3.9 yards per carry.
"I really won't know until I look at the film to be able to understand how they put up 37," defensive back Osahon Irabor said in his postgame press conference, per TheSunDevils.com. "We didn't play great. We still made a lot of errors."
Ironing out those errors on both sides of the ball is the difference between Arizona State competing for the Pac-12 South crown and finishing 2013 as an also-ran.
The Sun Devils have building blocks to work with in pursuit of the conference championship. After giving up big rushing yardage to Wisconsin, Stanford and USC, they limited the Irish to 145 yards.
Arizona State also responded to Fox’s backbreaking interception return not by melting down, but with a touchdown in under a minute. The score set up an onside kick attempt that the Sun Devils nearly recovered.
Positives exist. Turning them into tangible results as the Sun Devils return to conference play is the key.
Graham has long emphasized culture change at Arizona State, and the program has taken long strides in that direction. However, the next step it must take to reach the championship level it seeks is rising to the occasion when the stakes are highest.
No, Arizona State is not one of the nation's elite. But it's getting closer.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer for B/R. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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