You have probably already hit rewind a dozen or so times on Arizona State’s 32-30 win over No. 20 Wisconsin on Saturday night, trying to figure out exactly what happened at the end to give the Sun Devils a win.
The controversial ending, which boiled down to confusion that was not quelled but participated in by the officials, will be debated for some time in Wisconsin and remembered fondly in Tempe. No matter how it’s spun, ASU will always be the winner, having improved to 2-0 on the season.
The wacky finish overshadowed pretty much everything that happened in the previous 59 minutes and 43 seconds of play. Running back Marion Grice ran for four touchdowns. Receiver Jaelen Strong had a breakout game. Defensive tackle Will Sutton was hurt briefly. ASU’s receiving corps dropped passes all night. The run defense disappointed.
None of it seemed all that significant by the end of the night. So with a little time passed now to let that finish digest, here’s a look back at ASU’s win over Wisconsin.
From late in the third quarter to about the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter, ASU looked unstoppable. Grice touchdowns capped drives of 91, 76 and 60 yards, with the offense clicking like it hadn’t all game. The first of those drives appeared a logical turning point. But then the now-infamous kneeldown occurred. Wisconsin appeared set up to kick a game-winning field goal before quarterback Joel Stave’s much-debated kneeldown sparked the confusion that led to Wisconsin’s lost opportunity to pull out the win.
Grice. There is certainly a case to be made for receiver Jaelen Strong, who had three huge catches in the fourth quarter to help ASU take the lead, but Grice finished with four touchdowns and 84 yards on 22 carries to go along with five receptions for another 50 yards. No ASU player had run for four touchdowns in a game since Mike Williams against Arizona on Nov. 29, 2002. Grice now has 12 touchdowns over his last five games (10 rushing, two receiving).
Cornerback Osahon Irabor had a strong night that was, like many other things, lost in the crazy finish. Irabor led the team with seven tackles, recorded the team’s only sack — an impressive blindside hit — and accounted for 2.5 of ASU’s 6.0 tackles for loss.
THREE THINGS WE LEARNED
— There’s fight in these Sun Devils. The third quarter had all the makings of a prototypical ASU meltdown: a big play given up for a touchdown, an injury, an interception and virtually no momentum. It looked like another winnable game had gone off the rails and ASU would again be left heartbroken. But unlike teams of recent seasons, this group came roaring back, unwilling to accept defeat.
“When adversity struck, we were prepared for that,” senior safety Alden Darby said. “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.”
Sure, ASU came a spiked ball and hypothetical field goal away from another painful finish, but even if the Devils had lost, it would not have been quietly. The second-half turnaround was stuff not seen in Tempe for a long time.
— The run defense still needs work. After all the work ASU put in during the offseason to improve its run defense, Wisconsin was undoubtedly a measuring-stick game. The Sun Devils didn’t measure up, surrendering more rushing yards to the Badgers than they had in all but three games last season.
“It makes me mad to look at 231 yards rushing,” coach Todd Graham said. “That’s not indicative of what tonight was. They ran the power for 50 years, and they didn’t run the power (tonight).”
Particularly frustrating for ASU was the fly sweep, which worked numerous times, including on Melvin Gordon’s 80-yard touchdown run. Stop that, Graham said, and the Badgers might have had 100 fewer rushing yards.
Still, the run defense needs work. It may have worked in the ways ASU practiced it, but it didn’t work in the ways Wisconsin played it. Stanford will provide the next gauge.
— Special teams are an issue. “Special teams is the biggest thing that concerns me,” Graham said after the game, and for good reason.
In the second quarter, a bad snap to punter Dom Vizarre led to a Wisconsin touchdown when Vizarre tried to recover the ball only to lose out to Wisconsin defensive lineman Beau Allen. ASU’s punt return team was fooled by a fake punt in the fourth quarter, burned for 23 yards on a drive that led to a touchdown. The Sun Devils also failed on two two-point conversion attempts.
And those were just the memorable issues. Count on Graham spending a little extra time on special teams this coming week. WHERE THEY STAND
With two games in the books now, including one against a quality opponent, ASU’s statistical rankings have changed significantly. Here’s a look at where the Sun Devils stand:
— Total offense: 29th. Through two games, ASU is averaging 495.5 yards per game. — Total defense: 21st. ASU has now allowed 608 yards on the season, an average of 304.0 per game. — Scoring offense: 20th. ASU’s 43.5 yards per game trails Oregon, UCLA, Utah and Arizona in the Pac-12. — Scoring defense: T-20th with an average of 15.0 points allowed per game. — Rushing defense: T-52nd with an average of 141.0 rushing yards allowed per game. — Passing defense: 19th. ASU’s 163 passing yards allowed per game trails only Washington State and Stanford in the Pac-12. — Fewest penalty yards per game: 1st with 10.0 penalty yards per game. ASU has committed just four penalties for 20 total yards.
ODDS AND ENDS
— Sutton left the game on ASU’s second defensive series of the second half with an apparent thigh bruise. He returned after sitting most of a series. Graham said Sutton was riding a stationary bike on the sidelines to keep any swelling down, so it seems like Sutton played through some pain.
— A big issue that proved costly early and would have seemed even more costly if ASU had lost was drops. Richard Smith dropped three balls, Strong had one and even tight end Chris Coyle had a rare drop. “That was inexcusable,” Graham said. “That’s just concentration.”
— For the first time, ASU won a game in which quarterback Taylor Kelly threw an interception, which came immediately after the Devils had recovered a muffed punt in Wisconsin territory. Kelly wasn’t as sharp as he has been, misfiring on a few balls and holding onto the ball too long a couple times, but he still made big plays when ASU needed them. Particularly notable were his fade connections with Strong and D.J. Foster that led to touchdowns. Kelly was also 5 for 5 for 60 yards on ASU’s first touchdown drive. He finished the night 29 for 51 with 352 passing yards and no touchdowns; it was his second career start without a touchdown.
— After a strong opener, redshirt freshman linebacker Salamo Fiso saw early action against the Badgers. And again he made the most of his opportunity, recording a tackle for loss to set up a third down, although Wisconsin ended up converting.
— Safety Damarious Randall saw his first action this season at free safety after missing most of preseason camp with a groin strain. Randall didn’t look sharp right away, getting burned on a 30-yard run his first play, but eventually seemed to get a little more comfortable. He tallied two tackles and added a tackle for loss in the fourth quarter.
— On the injury front, receivers Joe Morris (foot), Ellis Jefferson (unknown) and Cameron Smith (muscle strain) and linebacker Carlos Mendoz (knee) were held out, though at least a few of them were available if needed.
— Last week, placekicker Zane Gonzalez was the only true freshman to play for ASU. On Saturday, twin brothers Alani and Viliami Latu joined the list of true freshmen with game experience, getting in on special teams.
ASU plays its first road game of the season next week, traveling to Palo Alto to play Stanford. The Cardinal, ranked No. 5 entering the weekend, beat Army 34-20. Stanford last played in Tempe in 2010, winning 17-13.