(Photo: Gabrielle Mercer/WCSN)
In a game that was billed as a shootout, Arizona State and Cal lived up to the hype. The Pac-12 opener hit the over in the final minute, and it wasn’t short on theatrics. An exciting second half allowed the Sun Devils to prevail, winning 51-41.
After the Sun Devils traded blows all game against Texas Tech, a team who runs a similar offense to Cal, two weeks ago, the expectation was that this Saturday night would be much of the same. Early on, it didn’t look like that would be the case, at least from ASU’s side.
Rough offensive first half
The Sun Devils finished with just 10 first half points, a far cry from the 37 they had scored against the Red Raiders. Manny Wilkins struggled with his accuracy at times, completing just half of his passes to only three different receivers in the first. In total, ASU was outgained 368-138, and only got on the board due to a Zane Gonzalez field goal and a late Wilkins touchdown run.
“We aren’t going to face any tougher offenses,” head coach Todd Graham said. “We just faced No. 1 and No. 2 in the country, so that’s got to prepare us and help us. You look all around the conference, and this conference is a challenge.”
Wilkins shouldered the blame for the slow start.
“First half I just have to get things rolling a little quicker,” he said.
If the offense looked like they struggled early on, the defense didn’t look any better. The Davis Webb-to-Chad Hansen connection was working early and often. Hansen caught eight passes in the first half, and blank total. Sun Devil cornerbacks Kareem Orr and Gump Hayes in particular had trouble keeping up with the Golden Bears entire wide receiving core during the first half.
Cal’s most impressive drive came within the last minute and a half of the first half, when they extended their lead to 24-10 by driving 82 yards in 1:02. The fast-paced Golden Bears offense also scored on a drive that started on their own two yard line, part of why Webb, a fifth year senior and Texas Tech transfer, threw for blank yards on the day, most of which came in the first half.
The two-headed monster of Khalfani Muhammed and Vic Enwere exploited holes in the Sun Devils run defense, which got one of its primary communicators and leaders, Salamo Fiso, back from suspension for the game. Cal outgained ASU on the ground, in large part because of Kalen Ballage’s absence for most of the first half. Despite a relative uncertainty on whether he would return, Ballage eventually worked his way back for the second half, which is crucial for the Sun Devils going forward.
New half, new life
The second half turned out to be a completely different story. Wilkins took over, using the read option kept the Golden Bears off balance.
ASU’s offense woke up from their first half slumber, with Wilkins leading the charge. He threw for a touchdown and ran for two more. Wilkins also passed for 228 yards in the final 30 minutes alone, and was aided by the return of Ballage, who served as viable option on the ground and through the air.
Graham remarked that Wilkins was extremely poised on the sidelines even during the struggles, which is not uncharacteristic from a player in the program.
Little used Jay Jay Wilson ended up catching a fourth quarter touchdown that tied the game at 34. From there, a rejuvenated defense took over.
They only allowed only 10 points in the half and got a crucial interception from Fiso that led to the go-ahead field goal from Gonzalez.
“They ran that play twice on us in the first half,” Fiso said. “After the third time, I had seen it. D.J. made him climb up. D.J.’s the reason we got that pick, because he made him go vertical and they dropped that running back to the flat to try and push me away and I read it. I’m lucky he threw it to the corner.”
Laiu Moeakiola followed it up with a pick six that essentially iced the game.
Devilbacker Koron Crump also stood out, sacking Webb twice.
Perhaps the most pivotal stat of the second half was that Chad Hansen, Cal’s top receiver who caught eight passes for 104 yards in the first half, caught only two for 6 yards in the second half, mostly due to Orr’s improvement in coverage.
“First half I was too phased,” Orr said. “He was a good receiver, he did what he had to do. The second half I just executed my gameplan.”
All season long, the theme for the defense has been their ability to step up when the game is on the line, which is what they did on Saturday night. Graham noted the positives and negatives of the situation that the defense is putting themselves in.
“We have to stop doing that,” he said. “Right before the half, we got soft. We are letting them run the ball, and pass the ball. That’s not what we are trying to do. We have to do a better job of coaching there.”
After a late Cal touchdown, the Sun Devils put the icing on the cake with an onside kick that was returned for a touchdown by D.J. Calhoun.
“I’m proud of these guys,” Graham said. “I think the heart shows up, especially when it counts. That was a big win for our team.”