However you might endeavor to describe it, it happened again Saturday, and Arizona State lost its 10th consecutive game decided by five or fewer points, 17-13 to No. 6 Stanford in front of a half-empty Sun Devil Stadium.
Oft-maligned Arizona State sophomore linebacker Vontaze Burfict was whistled for three penalties totaling 32 yards on a game-deciding fourth quarter touchdown drive by Stanford, all three of which were highly questionable.
Burfict was flagged for a holding call on a first-and-10 play from Stanford's 28 yard line that negated junior safety Eddie Elder's second interception of the game.
Five plays later, Burfict was called for a facemask penalty on second-and-5 from the ASU 35 yard line.
Burfict appeared to have senior receiver Doug Baldwin by the jersey instead of the facemask and lodged a complaint with the officials following the call, which led to an unsportsmanlike penalty that put the Cardinal on the 7 yard line.
Two plays later, Stanford two-way senior Owen Marecic punched it into the end zone from 1 yard out to put the Cardinal on top for good.
"I couldn't see what happened when we first got the interception," Erickson, ASU's coach, said. "The facemask, I mean there was no facemask. They called it because he grabbed the jersey and it looked like a facemask. Sometimes they make calls that are real critical that you just don't see."
Regardless, the loss left ASU 4-6 on the season and eliminated its hopes for a bowl game baring an unprecedented NCAA waiver -- possible only if ASU wins its final two games and fewer than 70 teams achieve bowl eligibility for the 35 games -- while Stanford improved to 9-1, increasing its profile for a possible BCS at-large bid.
"Very disappointing," Erickson said. "Our goal was to get there and we're not going, so we've got two football games left that are very important. We got a bye next week, that's all we can focus on right now."
Moral victories aren't going to appease most fans considering ASU will finish without a winning record for the third season in a row, but opposing teams' coaches and players have praised ASU as an underappreciated team following game after game this season, with more of the same Saturday.
"They are just a darn good football team," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said of the hard luck Sun Devils. "We talked about it, it's easily an 8-2, 9-1 type of team right now, and our guys prepared for that. They knew it was going to be a 60-minute, football fight.
"I think this is the kind of game that brings your guys together. You rely on each other, you trust in each other, and every play is critical. They feel good about each other now after that game, and the reason they do is that they know they themselves and their teammates played like champions. Champions win those type of games. I'm proud of them."
Stanford dominated the time of possession battle, had 34 more offensive plays from scrimmage, more than twice as many first downs and out-gained ASU in yards, 420-268, but couldn't put points on the scoreboard due in large part to a pesky Sun Devil defense.
"It's as good of a defensive effort as we have had this year," Erickson said. "We created turnovers and had a lot of opportunities obviously. Offensive we were not very productive as far as getting points on the board. We had some opportunities, we were down there in the first half and ended up turning it over. That's the story of the game. You turn it over, you get some penalties at the end of the game and you end up losing."
Turnover prone ASU quarterback Steven Threet -- who inched closer to breaking ASU's single season record with his 16th interception, just two shy of the mark -- fumbled away a likely touchdown drive at the 1-yard line early why trying to score in the second quarter, points desperately needed in what turned into a defensive battle.
"Yeah we had a roll on, we had the option to run it or throw it, had a couple guys open in the end zone and he decided to run it and didn't protect the football so you give away seven or three for sure because it was second down," Erickson said. "You talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, but they have to execute it."
ASU limited Stanford's ground attack to just 9 yards on 18 carries in the first half, but with sophomore defensive tackle Corey Adams and senior linebacker Gerald Munns held out due to injuries, the Cardinal physically wore on the undermanned group in the second half. Stanford finished with a still modest 128 rushing yards, most of which came on its last two drives, when it went ahead, and later clinched the victory with a 9-play, four minute drive to end the game.
"Well we played the run," Erickson said. "That was a key number one. We manned up outside against them in the passing game pretty well and got some good pressure on Luck, and forced him to make some bad throws. We played a lot of zone and forced him to throw it in there, I thought it was a great defensive effort."
Senior safety Max Tabach had 11 tackles for ASU while Burfict had 10 and junior linebacker Colin Parker had seven.
ASU took a 13-10 lead at the 4:43 mark of the third quarter on a drive highlighted by a 39-yard run by sophomore Cameron Marshall on a 8-yard touchdown strike from Threet to senior receiver Kerry Taylor. Struggling senior kicker Thomas Weber missed the extra point.
The teams played to a 7-7 tie at halftime with ASU's touchdown coming on a Threet keeper following a 30-yard pass to junior Gerell Robinson, and Threet's turnover at the goal line a critical lost opportunity.
"It's disappointing," Threet said. "Our goals were much higher than this, and it's tough, but after the fact, there have been too many close losses."