The game will undoubtedly be the most important for ASU since Todd Graham took over prior to last season. It could also be an exorcising of demons, as ASU has lost to UCLA in back-to-back seasons with the South title in play.
In 2011, the Sun Devils blew a lead and the chance to clinch at the Rose Bowl, starting a five-game tailspin that ended with coach Dennis Erickson’s dismissal. Last season, ASU lost to UCLA in Tempe without star defensive tackle Will Sutton, giving up the game-winning field goal as the clock ticked to zero in a game Graham contends cost the Sun Devils the South.
Now ASU has a third shot at it.
“We are 60 minutes away, one win away, from clinching the South,” Graham said Saturday. “That is a big, big deal.”
This is where Graham promised to take the Sun Devils when he arrived — in position to win championships. ASU still has to deliver, but to even get to this position, the Sun Devils had to first take care of Oregon State.
With the biggest game of the season six days away, here is one more look at ASU’s win Saturday.
ASU’s 20-3 halftime lead seemed to be a comfortable one, with the Sun Devils having the chance to put the game away early in the second half, but the Beavers kept it close, cutting ASU’s lead to 20-10 in the third quarter. Zane Gonzalez then hit an 18-yard field goal to put the Sun Devils up by 13 with 5:25 left. That pretty much closed the door, but Robert Nelson slammed it with an interception he returned 22 yards for a touchdown to put it away.
Running back Marion Grice. Though both of his touchdowns came from just a yard out, Grice was a major contributor on offense. He rushed 24 times for 118 yards, including a long run of 40 yards that set up ASU’s second touchdown. Grice now has 20 touchdowns on the season.
Cornerback Robert Nelson. The senior had perhaps his best game as a Sun Devil, posting five tackles, one fumble recovery and two interceptions, including one for a touchdown. Nelson has turned things around since early in the season, when he struggled a bit as the starter. Nelson now has six interceptions on the season, the most since Troy Nolan had six in 2007 and most by an ASU cornerback since Eric Allen had eight in 1987.
THREE THINGS WE LEARNED
— ASU is truly focused. Obviously, the Sun Devils would not have gotten to this point had they not been focused the last two and a half months, but this game was a big test. This was a test as to whether ASU has truly become a different program under Graham and able to handle success like past teams have not.
The Sun Devils passed with flying colors. There was clearly no overlooking the Beavers. ASU admittedly did not play its best game, but it avoided the hiccup of losing control of its own destiny. The Sun Devils would have still had the ability to win the South even with a loss, but beating Oregon State means they only have to beat UCLA to clinch the division. This, in the their minds, was a must-win game.
The focus continued after the final whistle, as ASU celebrated the win only briefly before turning its full attention toward UCLA and the opportunity to deliver on a championship promise.
“We’ve had very definitive goals form the day I walked in the door here, so we cannot spend one minute celebrating anything,” Graham said. “The first thing I did in the locker room was (say), ‘Congratulations, we’re going to the next deal.'”
That mentality displays the Sun Devils’ clear grasp on the big picture: They did not really accomplish anything Saturday night. They simply put themselves in position to accomplish something. And even that accomplishment would be just a stepping stone to the next opportunity: the chance for a Rose Bowl berth.
— ASU can win without playing its best football. For the second week in a row, the Sun Devils struggled a bit but still pulled out a win. Doing that once can be luck, but twice seems like more than that. The offense sputtered at times, especially once the Oregon State defense adjusted in the second half, and Kelly threw two interceptions for the third time this season (the other two times were the losses to Stanford and Notre Dame).
The defense also had lapses, such as the 75-yard touchdown drive it allowed in the game’s final five minutes, but was still the biggest reason for ASU’s win. The unit intercepted national passing leader Sean Mannion four times, including once for a touchdown, and limited the junior quarterback to 320 yards passing, 73 fewer than his season average. The defense also limited national receiving leader Brandin Cooks to 99 yards, 50 fewer than his per-game average.
Teams that get to the position the Sun Devils are now in often have to win a game or two without optimal performances. That’s what championship teams do. Without that ability this year, ASU probably wouldn’t be playing for a South title. That said, the Sun Devils will probably need to be firing on all cylinders to keep this thing going.
— Todd Graham’s standard applies to everyone. Graham has preached discipline from top to bottom since he arrived, but it wasn’t until Saturday night that the sincerity of his standard was truly tested. With the game still not in hand in the second half, Graham benched defensive standout Carl Bradford after the player and coach got into an argument of some sort on the sideline.
It’s not known what sparked the disagreement between coach and player, whom defensive line coach Jackie Shipp stepped in to hold back. It’s also not known what was said. Graham was asked about the confrontation after the game but did not go into detail.
“Obviously, guys make mistakes, so that’s why he didn’t play the rest of the game,” Graham said. “We’ll deal with that in house. People make mistakes. They get passionate down there sometimes, but as you can see, there are accountabilities.”
Graham said he didn’t want to take away from the win by discussing the incident further. Senior Kipeli Koniseti played the rest of the game at Devilbacker.
That Graham was willing to bench one of his best defensive players with the game still in the balance sent a clear message that the standard for discipline applies from walk-ons all the way up to stars. There are no exceptions based on talent, and that Graham took out such a key player in such an important game says a lot about what discipline and accountability mean to him.
WHERE THEY STAND
After another somewhat subpar performance, ASU mostly fell in national statistical categories. Notably, the passing defense dropped from first in the Pac-12 to fourth. Here’s where the Sun Devils stand nationally with two games left in the regular season:
— Total offense: 23rd with 475.3 yards per game (down from 17th) — Total defense: 16th with 338.4 yards allowed per game (down from 14th) — Scoring offense: 9th with 42.3 points per game (down from 8th) — Scoring defense: 45th with 24.4 points allowed per game (up from 55th) — Rushing defense: 17th with 120.6 rushing yards allowed per game (up from 22nd) — Passing defense: 39th with 217.8 passing yards allowed per game (down from 19th) — Fewest penalty yards per game: 4th with 30.2 penalty yards per game (up from 5th)
ODDS AND ENDS
— With Saturday’s win, ASU is now 6-0 at home this season with one game to play at Sun Devil Stadium. The Sun Devils have gone undefeated at home just once in the past 16 seasons, when they went 6-0 in 2004. ASU is also 10-2 at home under Todd Graham.
— ASU is now 13-0 when leading at halftime under Graham.
— The Sun Devils have forced a turnover in 24 straight games, including all 23 of Graham’s tenure. That is the third-longest such active streak in college football, behind those of Missouri and Stanford.
— ASU matched its win total from 2012 Saturday and reached six Pac-10/12 wins for just the fourth time in 36 seasons since joining the league in 1978.
— After 20 points off turnovers Saturday, ASU has now outscored opponents 101-35 on points off turnovers this season. Opponents have scored on just five of ASU’s 15 turnovers.
— Now with 20 touchdowns on the season, Grice is two shy of the ASU single-season touchdowns record held by Wilford White. Grice on Saturday became the third Sun Devil (joining White and Terry Battle) and 15th player in the Pac-10/12 era to tally 20 touchdowns in a season.
— Grice also ran his streak of 100 or more all-purpose yards to 12 games, dating back to last season.
— Wide receiver Jaelen Strong looked like himself again after battling an ankle injury the last few weeks. He finished with 106 yards on seven catches. On ASU’s opening drive, he had 66 yards, which was 16 more than his last three games combined.
— What initially looked like a bad penalty for ASU in the second quarter turned into a blessing. Quarterback Taylor Kelly pooch punted on a fourth down, pinning Oregon State at its own 2-yard line, but a false start negated the punt. Alex Garoutte’s subsequent punt was muffed, leading to an ASU recovery and a Grice touchdown.
— D.J. Foster’s first-quarter touchdown was his first rushing score of the season. The sophomore has three receiving touchdowns.
— As expected, redshirt freshman Viliami Moeakiola was held out due to injury. He started at spur linebacker against Utah last week.