(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Coming into Saturday’s Pac-12 opener against California-Berkeley, the theme of resilience had become recurring this season for Arizona State.
That narrative held true as the Sun Devils knocked off Cal 51-41, outscoring the Golden Bears 41-17 in the second half.
“I’m not going the stand up here and say halftime adjustments,” head coach Todd Graham said. “It’s the heart of our players, I don’t just say that lightly, I think these kids have shown it. We ain’t done nothing, we won one game.”
Cal’s offense proved to be problematic, which was to be expected, in the first half as Davis Webb dissected the Arizona State secondary. He posted three touchdowns before halftime, completing eight of his 32 attempts to receiver Chad Hansen.
At that point, it looked as though Cal’s “Bear Raid” offensive attack, which ranks fourth in the FBS in plays of 20 or more yards with 33, wasn’t going to be slowed down.
Then, a different Sun Devil team emerged from the Tillman Tunnel for the second half.
Cornerback Kareem Orr locked in on Hansen, limiting him to just two catches for six yards in the second half, headlining a defensive effort that forced three turnovers.
“He was a good receiver, you know,” Orr said. “He did what he had to do, my game plan in the second half coming out against him, I executed it.”
The biggest play of the game came courtesy of the defense, more specifically, from Salamo Fiso. He intercepted Davis Webb as the Bears looked to regain the lead late in the fourth quarter, setting up Zane Gonzalez’s third field goal of the contest to give the Sun Devils a 37-34 lead.
“They ran that play twice on us in the first half,” Fiso said. “After the third time I seen it, D.J. [Calhoun] made him climb up, D.J.’s the reason why I really got that pick, he made him go vertical. They dropped the running back into the flat to try and push me away, I read it and I was lucky that he threw it to the climb.”
Fiso had missed the first three games of the season due to suspension. He finished with nine total tackles on top of the interception.
LISTEN: ASU head coach Todd Graham addresses the media following ASU’s win over Cal
“You can’t really see the value that he [Fiso] has because of all the communication that he does,” Graham said. “It’s always a challenge because we’re communicating a little bit different this year, so we’ve missed him a great deal because of the communicator that he is, so that helped. It took him a few quarters, to really [get back], because he’s usually communicates with everybody, he keeps everybody on the same page.”
On offense, Manny Wilkins led the charge on the ground, carrying the ball 23 times for 72 yards and three touchdowns. As was the case for the rest of the team, it was a tale of two halves for Wilkins.
He posted two of his three rushing touchdowns as well as 228 of his 290 passing yards following the break.
“One thing I think we’ve been preaching since we began is no matter what the outcome, no matter what the issue is at the time, we’ve just got to keep working, keep grinding,” Wilkins said. “This team is built of warriors, defense played a very good game, first half, I’ve just got to get things rolling a little quicker.”
The biggest adjustment Graham made on offense was the tweaks he made on the offensive line at halftime. Graham decided to reinsert A.J. McCollum into the lineup, replacing Zach Robertson.
McCollum had started at center in the last two games following Robertson’s ankle injury and played well, making the decision easier for Graham.
McCollum played guard in this case, while Stephon McCray stayed at center and Quinn Bailey kicked out to tackle. Following the move to McCollum, Wilkins was sacked just once in the second half.
In the backfield, Kalen Ballage went down with a knee injury in the first quarter, but returned in the third after initially being ruled out for the game.
“He’s a warrior, this team is made of warriors,” Wilkins said. “He was the momentum shift, we went into our Sparky package and got things rolling. He’s a warrior, he dominated.”
The second half saw a revitalized Arizona State team, but according to Laiu Moeakiola, the adjustments were as simple as getting back to basics.
Moeakiola put the game away late, with an interception he returned for a touchdown.
“Basically it just goes back to what coach does,” Moeakiola said. “Just buckling down, getting guys settled, reminding them to just do their job because a lot of the stuff [issues] is just self inflicted, like coach Graham talks about, not doing their assignment, guys trying to make plays outside the system, so the biggest thing is doing our part as a individual and a team.”