It may have only been for a few moments at halftime, but nearly every Arizona State fan watching the Sun Devils play Colorado on national TV on Thursday night had to at least consider the worst-case scenario: Could ASU lose this game?
With some of the heartbreaking “woulda, coulda, shoulda” losses of the past few seasons, an upset at the hands of the 1-4 Buffaloes had to at least seem possible with the Devils leading by only three following a sloppy first half.
But a different team came out of the locker room for the second half.
ASU overcame a first half filled with mistakes and missed opportunities to rout Colorado 51-17, shutting out the Buffaloes in the second half and setting up a monumental game with Oregon next Thursday.
“That was uncharacteristic, the first half,” ASU coach Todd Graham said in a postgame interview with KTAR 620 AM. “We really came in at halftime and said, ‘Look, that’s not how we play football.’ I was really proud of how they responded.”
Despite outgaining Colorado 303-166 in the first half, ASU (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12) took a narrow lead into halftime thanks to a string of miscues. The worst of the damage came just before the halftime whistle, with ASU allowing 10 points in the final 24 seconds.
The ASU secondary had perhaps its worst series of the season and gave Colorado (1-5, 1-2) the ball on its own 3-yard line with a pass interference penalty. Colorado scored, and on the ensuing kickoff, ASU senior Jamal Miles fumbled, giving the Buffaloes enough time to kick a field goal.
“We’re playing undisciplined,” Graham said at the half. “We’re playing in a hostile environment and we’re not playing very good.
“We’ve got guys just leaving receivers running straight down the field, not covering them.”
The breakdowns were new for the ASU defense, but Miles’ fumble was his second of the season on a return. Also uncharacteristic were five penalties for 33 yards, giving the Sun Devils more penalty yards in the first half than they had been averaging per game (31.0). ASU also had an extra-point attempt blocked after its first touchdown.
As teams headed to the locker room at the halfway mark, Graham gathered his players into a huddle and addressed them. Whatever his message, it got through to the Sun Devils, who were one lost fumble from a near-perfect second half.
It started with senior Rashad Ross returning the opening kickoff of the half 100 yards for a touchdown, immediately reclaiming the game’s momentum for the Sun Devils. ASU outgained Colorado 290-89 after halftime, commited no penalties and picked apart the Buffaloes defense to finish with 593 total yards. The fumble came from senior running back Cameron Marshall and was his third lost fumble of the season.
“The only thing negative in the second half was turning the football over one time,” Graham said.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly was in control in the Sun Devils’ masterful second half, finishing the game 20 of 28 passing for 308 yards and five touchdowns. Kelly made junior running back Marion Grice his favorite target of the night, as Grice caught five passes for 101 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman running back D.J. Foster also had six receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown.
If anyone watching had missed the first half, they might not have known it was ever a close game.
“It was ugly the first half, but nobody panicked,” Graham said. “I’ll be real honest with you: We didn’t change much. … It’s hard and we did everything we can, but maybe they were looking ahead a little bit.”
All week, Graham stressed to his players that they could not overlook Colorado and look ahead to next Thursday’s home game with No. 2 Oregon. Perhaps they did just that, if only for a half. Or perhaps it was a road atmosphere getting to the Sun Devils, as it did against Missouri earlier this season.
But now the Sun Devils can focus solely on the Ducks and what appears to be one of the program’s biggest games in recent years. Oddly enough, ASU was 5-1 a year ago when it met Oregon in Eugene. This year, the game is on ASU’s turf, and Sun Devil Stadium likely will sell out for the team’s annual “blackout” game.
Many might already discount the possibility of ASU toppling a powerful Oregon team that some expect to play for a national championship. But even if the Sun Devils can’t pull off an upset, it’s no small feat that Graham has his team one win from bowl eligibility with six games to play.
Expectations were low for a team under new leadership, particularly after losing numerous key pieces to the NFL Draft, but Graham and his staff have the Sun Devils way ahead of schedule.
Thursday’s game in Boulder went from a formality before playing Oregon to potential speed bump and then right back to a tune-up game, and Graham believes his team is better for it.
“There were a lot of teachable moments tonight, and we got better as a football team because I like how we finished,” Graham said. ” Our guys are excited, and we’re ready to go to work in preparation for Oregon.”