(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
In front of 51,428 fans on the final home game of the season, the Arizona State football team did exactly what it could not do last week against Oregon State.
Though the physical context of each of the Sun Devils’ past two games was in stark contrast—a blistering 30 degrees in Corvallis for an 8:45 p.m. kickoff last week, compared to a pleasant 61 degrees in Tempe for an 11:00 a.m. kickoff on Saturday—the situations that manifested themselves in both games were comparable.
For both games, the Sun Devils entered as favorites against opponents that were assumed to be stepping stones and tune-ups for the season-finale Territorial Cup matchup. And for both games, ASU found itself in an offensive slump, an unsure defensive identity and an all-around empty tank of momentum.
Against Oregon State, these odds proved insurmountable for a then-No. 6 ASU team.
Yet blessed with a shot at redemption and a chance to amend its susceptible-to-letdown historical image, the Sun Devils responded in emphatic fashion with a 52-31 win over Washington State.
After 26 minutes of play against the Cougars, ASU was the projected laughingstock of the country. Uninspired play (remarkable considering the emotional atmosphere that senior day produces) yielded a 21-7 deficit and increasingly loud grumblings advocating for another quarterback change. Visions of back-to-back losses to the bottom-dwellers of the Pac-12 will naturally cause that.
But as quickly as ASU’s successful season was dwindling at the hands of the Cougars, a time-bomb of momentum-swinging big plays went off. The result was a 45-10 run that spanned from the 3:12 mark in the second quarter to the final seconds of the game to give the Sun Devils their ninth win of the season.
It was not one player who keyed the halt to the landslide of miscues; rather, it was a defense that picked up a stalling offense and an offense that capitalized on the prime opportunities.
“It was huge,” Kelly said regarding the contributions from his defense. “We just had to come out and execute and we weren’t doing that early on. We kind of lost our focus in the beginning of the game, but our defense did a great job. They’re unbelievable and we can always rely on them. That’s what a great team does.”
Although the defense did allow Washington State to rack up 601 passing yards and possess the ball for over 35 minutes (compared to 24 minutes for ASU’s offense), the five turnovers forced is all that needs to be considered.
Graham attributed the onslaught of forced turnovers to his team reverting back to its base defense, and essentially disregarding an entire week’s worth of scheming for Washington’s potent aerial attack.
“We had this whole plan of rushing four and playing coverage,” head coach Todd Graham said. “But we scratched that plan when we went down 21-7. One of the things we measure every day is turnovers. When we are an attacking defense, turnovers is exactly what we want to happen.”
Each turnover was momentous in its own right. Whether it was Kweishi Brown (who had played poorly to that point) making an acrobatic one-handed interception, Marcus Hardison continuing to skyrocket his draft stock with a tipped interception to himself or Viliami Latu collecting a Luke Falk fumble and rumbling for 51 arduous yards, ASU’s defense responded when the team needed it most.
“Our defensive line starting creating a lot of pressure and once we created a couple turnovers, their offense started slowing down a little bit,” said senior safety Damarious Randall, who also had an interception of his own. “Their quarterback (Luke Falk) started second-guessing himself and that’s when we started attacking more and more.”
The offense then assured that those five turnovers forced were not wasted. Scoring a whopping 35 off Washington State’s shortcomings, the Sun Devils have now logged 125 points off of turnovers in 2014.
After looking lost for much of the first half (evidenced by a quarterback rating of -4.6 halfway through the second quarter) without his go-to playmaker in Jaelen Strong, Taylor Kelly found his groove and turned in a massive four-touchdown performance.
Graham did not hesitate in showing his admiration, not only for Kelly’s performance on Saturday, but for Kelly’s entire career at ASU.
“That guy has meant so much to this program. Being a quarterback is pretty tough. Probably tougher than being a head coach. That young man has been stellar. He is the one that has truly led this team. Without his leadership, we will not be where we are at today. In 27 years of coaching he is the most special person I have ever been around and I am proud that I had the chance to coach him,” Graham said.
The receiving corps followed the same start-slow, explode-later trend as did the rest of the team.
After committing costly drops and displaying poor ball skills, at some point late in the second quarter a light clicked for the group—the most noteworthy of which was wide receiver Cameron Smith, who racked up 131 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
“Cam is a tremendous athlete, he’s one of those guys who’s always going to be early to practice, early to treatment, and just keeps chopping at the wood. He has been waiting for his time and he got that opportunity and took advantage of it,” Kelly said.
“We didn’t know Strong wasn’t going to play until right before the game. I didn’t need to say much to Smith. He’s very smart and a man of few words. I gave him a little fist bump and asked for a touchdown,” Graham said.
Not to be outdone, DJ Foster provided an additional surge with three rushing touchdowns and 155 all-purpose yards.
Sure, ASU’s dramatic rebound can be minimized in importance when considering that Washington State entered Saturday allowing 38 points and 521.2 yards per game. But, Oregon State was equally as unimpressive on paper and still proceeded to hand the Sun Devils their first loss in six games and derail their College Football Playoff hopes.
Factoring in the zapped momentum, the nonexistent energy after the first 26 minutes, and the fact that ASU had suffered a near-identical defeat a week ago, the soul-searching win for the Sun Devils turns a bit sweeter and reveals just how tightly knit this group is.
“Adversity hit early on and our team responded really well,” said quarterback Taylor Kelly. “It was in that second quarter that we came together as a unit, offensively and defensively, and we put on a great show tonight.”