TEMPE, Ariz. — Many expected Arizona State to sneak by No. 20 Washington with homefield advantage Saturday. It’s hard to imagine anyone expected the kind of dominance the Sun Devils displayed.
In a decisive 53-24 win, ASU made a big statement about its status as a Pac-12 contender and answered any lingering questions about its underperforming defense.
“That might be the most impressive performance as a team since I’ve been here,” coach Todd Graham said. “We beat a really good football team. We dominated a really good football team.
“Both sides of the ball, we dominated tonight.”
ASU’s 53 points were the program’s most ever against Washington and the most any team has put up against the Huskies’ 20th-ranked defense this season. ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly shredded the Pac-12’s top-ranked passing defense for 268 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for a career-high 84 yards and two touchdowns.
Senior receiver Kevin Ozier led the Sun Devils with eight catches for 88 yards with star receiver Jaelen Strong unable to play for most of the second half due to an ankle injury. And no one impressed more than running back Marion Grice, who ran for a career-best 161 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 34 yards and a touchdown.
“Marion Grice was unbelievable tonight,” Graham said. “I love watching him.”
But even on a night when ASU tallied 585 total yards on 93 plays for an average of 6.3 yards a snap, it was the defense that shined brightest.
After losing three starters to graduation and struggling at times against a brutal early-season schedule, ASU’s defense was questioned and criticized, particularly for its continued inability to stop the run. Holding national rushing leader Bishop Sankey to 22 yards on 13 carries was a statement in and of itself, but that was just the start.
Perhaps the most dominant aspect of the defensive performance was an aggressive line that looked like it did for most of 2012, racking up 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks against Washington.
“Those guys up front destroyed the line of scrimmage,” Graham said. “That’s how you play run defense. We also pressured the quarterback in a big way too.”
ASU held Washington’s 15th-ranked rushing attack to less than zero (minus-5) yards on the ground. That stands tied for the second-best performance by an ASU rush defense since 1996.
Before leaving with a thumb injury in the fourth quarter, Washington quarterback Keith Price — the conference’s leader in completion percentage entering the game — was 16 of 39 passing while being hounded by constant pressure.
It all added up to ASU’s most impressive win of the season, one that surely convinced many of those still on the fence that the Sun Devils are a contender in the Pac-12 South.
“We’re getting better each week,” Kelly said. “The guys are practicing harder than I’ve ever seen and preparing more than I’ve ever seen. As long as we do our job and do what we’re coached to do, we’re going to have a lot of success.”
With UCLA losing to Stanford earlier in the day, ASU now stands atop the Pac-12 South and firmly in the driver’s seat in the division. All ASU has to do is keep winning to set up a decisive Nov. 23 game with UCLA — which next week must visit No. 2 Oregon — for the opportunity to play in the Pac-12 championship game.
Graham on Thursday called the looming game with ASU’s third ranked opponent of the season the “pivotal point of the season.” If that was the case, the Sun Devils certainly pivoted in the right direction.
“This was a big game for us,” Graham said. “We still control our own destiny, and I kind of like controlling our own destiny. I don’t know what anybody else did — it doesn’t matter.”
But even as dominant as the Sun Devils were Saturday, it’s clear a few issues remain. Most prominent among them: special teams. Against Washington, ASU turned the ball over on a punt return, had an extra-point attempt blocked and allowed two kickoff returns to midfield.
ASU also could have been more efficient offensively and put the game out of reach early, instead having to settle for field goals four times in 10 red-zone attempts.
“Even as good as we played tonight — and this is what I told the kids in the locker room — look at all the errors, look at how much better we can play,” Graham said. “We’ve just got to keep getting better.”
Added defensive end Gannon Conway: “Obviously it feels great, but we still have a hell of a schedule coming up. This game, we’ve just got to learn from it. We’ve got to get better so we can prepare to win the South.”
As tough as the going remains for the Sun Devils, they do get the benefit of a bye week next Saturday before going on the road for games against Washington State and Utah. That should give Strong and others a chance to heal. It should also give ASU a chance to determine what it must do to have more success away from Sun Devil Stadium given a 2-5 record in those games under Graham.
Undoubtedly, the Sun Devils have much to accomplish over their final five games. One win in October alone does not accomplish the team’s goals, but it sure made one heck of a statement Saturday.
“We’re going to have a chance in every game we play,” Graham said. “We’ve just got to take them one at a time.”