(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Leading up to this game, everybody viewed the 2015 Sun Devil football team as a disappointment. Losing games they should have won, underwhelming performances from impact players, inconsistent play on both sides of the ball, and not meeting most of their goals.
While that last statement may be true, the biggest goal of them all was met.
Head coach Todd Graham’s Sun Devils defeated the Arizona Wildcats 52-37 in their most complete performance of the season, and for the moment all of the talk of disappointment is set to the side.
“It’s a great time to be a Sun Devil,” Graham said. “We didn’t hit the mark where we wanted to this year but that one heals you up quite a bit… That was worth about five wins there.”
A lot of the hype surrounding this game involved the depth and versatility of the Arizona wide receivers, but the group that ended up taking the spotlight was the receiving corps for ASU. Redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici hit six different targets throughout this game, but fellow redshirt senior Devin Lucien left his mark in his final game at Sun Devil Stadium.
ASU’s first two scores came in the first quarter, and Lucien was the catalyst. He caught a 58-yard pass to set up an eight-yard rushing touchdown for sophomore running back Demario Richard, then he catching his own 59-yard touchdown.
“To have a game like today, my hat just goes off to everybody else who help put me in that position to do what I did,” Lucien said. “It was great, and I’m really lost for words because this was my first time really doing something in a rival game.”
Lucien finished with nine catches for 190 yards, both career highs, and his touchdown set the tone for the Sun Devil offense.
The offense’s explosion was put to a slight halt after the first quarter when Bercovici threw an interception on the second play of the second quarter to Arizona sophomore cornerback Cam Denson. Despite the dominant performance on both sides of the ball out of the gates, the Sun Devils found themselves in a one possession game at 14-7.
Bercovici and the offense responded early in the second quarter, with a 10-play, 70-yard drive where Bercovici powered it into the end zone on a one-yard run.
Arizona struggled to find anything offensively in the first quarter, compiling only 67 total yards. Redshirt senior quarterback Jerrard Randall was 4-13 with 35 passing yards, and had 22 rushing yards on the ground. Following the slow first quarter, Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez elected to pull Randall and put redshirt freshman Brandon Dawkins in at quarterback.
“We didn’t know too much (about Dawkins),” senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington said. “We knew what type of quarterback he was although he was a freshman and we didn’t have much film on him, but we understood what he liked to do… We pretty much didn’t have to do too much as far as our game plan to change things up.”
Despite the change Arizona still couldn’t find much offensively other than a field goal set up by a 28-yard pass from Dawkins to redshirt senior receiver Johnny Jackson. At that point it was 21 to 10 Sun Devils, but Bercovici did what Bercovici managed to do all night long, and get the offense to respond.
“Our players made plays,” Bercovici said. “Wide receivers played fantastic, and the first half it was fun to just get some of those explosive plays.”
He led a six-play, 50-yard drive that concluded in another one of those explosive plays, finding redshirt freshman wide receiver Jalen Harvey for a 41-yard touchdown pass to put ASU up 28-10. Not only was it Harvey’s first touchdown as a Sun Devil, but it was also his first career catch in a Sun Devil uniform.
Another explosive play came in ASU’s final drive of the first half, with sophomore running back Kalen Ballage bursting for a 65-yard run to set up a 29-yard field goal by junior kicker Zane Gonzalez to end the half.
Ballage and fellow sophomore running back Demario Richard had another spectacular performance feeding off of each other, each gaining 100 yards on the ground for the second time this season, and were a large part of ASU recording 400 yards of offense in the first half.
While the two dominated on the ground for most of the game, Richard left the game in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury, and his status is still unknown.
“I haven’t heard anything yet,” Graham said. “He’s a tough kid. He should be okay.”
The beginning of the second half was a different story, and the third play after halftime was fortunately the worst of what came for ASU in the third quarter when Bercovici fumbled and set up a field goal for Arizona to make it a 31-13 game.
No points were scored for either team after that until Arizona hit another field goal with 3:35 left in the third quarter to make it 31-13.
The ASU offense struggled to make plays the entire third quarter, compiling 87 yards and converting only one of their five third down attempts. While they managed to get over the hump in the fourth, Graham felt comfortable despite the third quarter slump.
“I felt like we were under control because I didn’t think they could sustain drives and score because I didn’t think they could run the ball,” Graham said. “So if we didn’t give up cheap ones in the air, I thought they were going to struggle.”
Arizona did continue to struggle for the most part, but Graham’s defense gave up a cheap one in the air that brought them back into the game.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Trey Griffey, who only caught eight passes for the Wildcats this season, caught a pass on a simple curl route, but managed to run all over the field for 95 yards for a touchdown, and brought Arizona within eight.
“I was so infuriated because we had played so well, and I mean, we get a 90-yard curl route?” Graham said. “What was that? How does that happen? How do you go the whole game and play like that and give up that?”
After trading touchdowns with Arizona on the next two possessions, Arizona was still one possession away from tying it up.
In the Wildcats’ first attempt at a comeback, Dawkins threw a pass that was intercepted by freshman safety Kareem Orr, and it was run back for a touchdown. Orr had been injured for the last week and a half or so, and didn’t see much game action until the interception.
“But playing Kareem, he was ready to go,” Graham said. “We started Solomon (Means) because Kareem wasn’t able to practice the whole week. So that worked out good.”
Then the following possession, Arizona’s second comeback attempted was spoiled by another Sun Devil defensive back, this time it was Carrington. Carrington took another interception to the house and put the game out of reach for Arizona.
“Man, I love finishing that way. I love those pick sixes for touchdowns,” Graham said. “I tell you what was interesting, I showed them every single turnover I think we’ve ever had in this game. The last thing I showed them was Damarious Randall’s pick-six. I said, I wonder what that feels like right there? That feels pretty good. It must make you feel like that.”
With such a special performance from the seniors on the roster, Graham won his biggest game of the year in the biggest way possible.
“I’m just grateful for these seniors because I can’t tell you how fragile this has been for now going on four years,” Graham said. “We’ve won a lot of close football games and these guys have busted their butt and given me everything they’ve got and I’m just really, really proud of them.”