(Photo: Alli Cline/WCSN)
It wasn’t for a Rose Bowl coronation. It wasn’t for a trip to the first-ever College Football Playoff Championship game. It wasn’t even a convincing win over a powerhouse opponent in a nationally-acclaimed bowl game.
But for the No. 15 Arizona State football team, a thrilling 36-31 win over the Duke Blue Devils in the Sun Bowl, in which a myriad of underclassmen played pivotal roles in the outcome of the game, is all that really matters.
It is also all that should matter.
As much as head coach Todd Graham wanted to make this game about the departing players, and for as well as senior quarterback Taylor Kelly and NFL-bound wide receiver Jaelen Strong played, Saturday’s win clearly morphed into a showcase of the future of ASU football.
The Sun Devils posted 36 points against Duke, and each one was scored by a player who will return next season. Demario Richard, a true freshman running back whose 18-years-of-age are well-known, dazzled for four touchdowns—one- and nine-yard rushing touchdowns and four- and 11-yard receiving touchdowns.
Sophomore kicker Zane Gonzalez was also perfect on the day, as he barreled home field goals from 28, 38 and 47 yards.
Other notable high-impact performers were freshman Kalen Ballage, who rumbled for a 96-yard kickoff return and put the Sun Devils in a position to retake the lead during the final stages of the fourth quarter, redshirt-junior WILL linebacker Antonio Longino, who led the team with 17 tackles, and junior cornerback Kweishi Brown, who secured a game-saving interception in ASU’s end zone.
The common theme: All will be returning in 2015.
ASU projects to return all but one starter on the defensive side of the ball for next season. Though defensive tackle Marcus Hardison will be graduating and Damarious Randall is at the mercy of the NCAA to determine whether or not he’ll receive another year of eligibility, the defense will be nevertheless be studded with the likes of linebacker Laui Moeakiola, safety Jordan Simone and corner Lloyd Carrington.
The offense will be led by quarterback Mike Bercovici, who has clearly proven that he can execute Mike Norvell’s system just as well as, if not better than, Kelly. DJ Foster will headline the loaded returning backfield, and will be the safety-outlet in the passing game as he was so often this season. Sophomore wideout Cameron Smith, who was sidelined on Saturday, will be the likely candidate for a breakout season, as he will earn the label of “go-to target.”
Combine those returners with the escalating prestige of the Arizona State recruiting class—one that now features two four-star prospects in 6’5”, 320-pound offensive lineman Zach Robertson and speedster running back Paul Lucas, and one five-star prospect in linebacker Davon Durant—and it is clear that the sky is the limit for ASU football in the coming years.
As the Sun Devils’ lead was withering away late in the fourth quarter, and was even relinquished at one moment, the focus of this article was looking as if it were going to be a plea to the Sun Devil community that this season cannot be considered a failure.
Though expectations were naturally high at the start of the 2014 season after a Pac-12 South championship in 2013, those expectations were also reasonably tempered.
Reconstructing an entire defense after it was decimated by graduation seniors is no easy feat, and thus projecting ten wins from ASU seemed like a bit of homer’s optimism.
That the Sun Devils were able to persevere through a complete defensive overhaul, a broken foot to its starting quarterback and an extremely deep Pac-12 South, and have this sort of success and enthusiasm surrounding the program along the way, is nothing short of remarkable.
A loss to Duke in the Sun Bowl on Saturday could not possibly have altered that stance.
But a win validates it one hundred-fold.
The barometer for sustained success for the ASU program has consistently been to notch back-to-back 10-win seasons. After all, before a few hours ago, the Sun Devil program hadn’t accomplished that feat since 1973.
Now that it has been accomplished, it’s easy to say that ASU football is trending in a positive direction.
But it would be even wiser to disregard the 10-win plateau as the threshold for success.
Given the current makeup of Sun Devil football—its projected roster for next season, the high-caliber recruits that will eventually inhabit Tempe and the hype that has catapulted the program to nationally-respected—10 wins should be considered the floor.
National championship is now the ceiling.