TEMPE, Ariz. — There’s no disagreement that the ending to Arizona State’s 32-30 win over No. 20 Wisconsin was bizarre.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in college football,” ASU cornerback Osahon Irabor said. “I definitely haven’t played in a game like that.”
Other players echoed the sentiment, but through it all, the Sun Devils walked away victors over back-to-back-to-back Big Ten champions coming off three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances, securing the marquee win that has eluded the program in recent seasons.
“This is what it’s all about, a win like this,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “It’s a big win for our program, and you just go to the next one. The next one is the most important one.”
Added Irabor: “It’s huge for us as a program to show that we’re here to play with the big boys. We’re ready for any challenge.”
ASU is already looking forward to its next game against reigning Pac-12 champion Stanford, but its fans — and certainly Wisconsin’s, too — are still talking about Saturday’s outcome.
With the clock winding down, Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave tried to set up the Badgers for a game-winning field goal by kneeling with intentions of then spiking the ball to stop the clock. But ASU players didn’t believe Stave had actually kneeled, so they jumped on the ball as if it had been fumbled.
The play had been whistled dead, but as ASU players lay on the ball, the clock ticked away. And after the official spotted the ball, he signaled to Wisconsin that it was not ready for play, even as the Badgers gestured at the clock desperately; by the time he backed away, there was only about a second left, and Wisconsin’s spike came after time expired.
It seems entirely clear that the officials robbed the Badgers of the chance — and there’s no guarantee a field goal would have been made — to win the game. But from the Sun Devils’ standpoint, a win is a win.
“Luck was on our side,” Irabor said. “I’ll take it. We’ll take it any way we can get it. Sloppy, ugly, beautiful — it doesn’t matter.”
It was an undoubtedly sloppy effort by the Devils, and they weren’t shy admitting it.
“We made some critical errors,” quarterback Taylor Kelly said. ” We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to come to work this week.”
Among the more egregious miscues: at least four dropped passes, a badly snapped punt that turned into a Wisconsin touchdown and a Kelly interception immediately after the Badgers muffed a punt.
Graham admitted that the coaches also made numerous mistakes. Whether it was play calling, the decision to go for it on an early fourth down or multiple failed attempts at a two-point conversion, ASU left points on the field and gave Wisconsin ample opportunities to pull out the win.
But again, as ugly as it was or as unfair as some will call it, ASU got the big win that could be the first step in the program’s quest to elevate itself to another level. The Sun Devils have had chances in recent seasons — Wisconsin in 2010 and Oregon in 2012, to name a couple — for a marquee win only to watch their hopes fade amid mistakes, bad calls, penalties and plain old bad luck.
With those lost opportunities in mind, it seemed at one point Saturday night that ASU had lost control of the game. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon ran 80 yards on the first play of the second half to give the Badgers a 21-13 lead, and for the rest of the third quarter, the Sun Devils hadn’t a sliver of momentum.
The feeling had to be familiar for ASU fans, with another winnable game apparently slipping away. But this time, ASU charged back, with running back Marion Grice scoring three of his four touchdowns in the fourth quarter, taking a 32-30 lead with less than four minutes to play and energizing Sun Devil Stadium like no team in recent memory.
“It starts with the leadership,” senior safety Alden Darby said.” I’ve never played on a team in my life that has so much leadership. We all believe in each other and think we can get it done. When adversity struck, we were prepared for that. We practiced situations like that. We just all pulled together. Nobody had their head held down. We were down, and we still expected to win.”
The Devils did come one spike and a hypothetical field goal from their latest heartbreaking loss, but the standings will show ASU is 2-0.
The win could mark a defining moment in program history, regardless of how it came. Wisconsin was the highest-ranked opponent ASU has defeated since a win over No. 18 Cal, a team that later fell out of the rankings, in 2007. Dramatic wins over ranked teams on a national stage don’t come that often.
But to make good on the marquee win Saturday, ASU must successfully navigate three more tough contests over the next three weeks, starting with No. 5 Stanford next week. If not, it could become but a nice — albeit highly unusual — win in an otherwise average season.
“We knew that we had to face the defending Big Ten champion in Week 2, and we can check that one off our list,” Graham said. “Now comes the Pac-12 champion, and is that more important? Darn right it is. It is 10 times more important.
“The next two games are both conference games, and obviously they are very, very critical to our success — and none more than Stanford.”