Wild weekend positions ASU well in South race

TEMPE, Ariz. — Chances are the beginnings to more than one eulogy for Arizona State’s reign as Pac-12 South champions already were written before Mike Bercovici heaved a prayer downfield to Jaelen Strong and stunned the Trojans on the last play of the game Saturday night in Los Angeles.

On more than one occasion it look as though the Sun Devils would drop out of the South race with back-to-back losses, but the Hail Mary finish saved their season and they stand on solid footing in a race that could go any number of ways.

The current South leader at 2-0 in conference play is Arizona, which shocked No. 2 Oregon in Eugene on Thursday and made the largest jump in the history of the Associated Press Top 25 poll, going from unranked to No. 10.

ASU, which returned to the AP Top 25 at No. 20, sits second in the South at 2-1, followed by USC (2-1), UCLA (1-1), Utah (1-1) and Colorado (0-3). ASU would be sitting lower if not for some help from Utah, which upset UCLA at the Rose Bowl late Saturday.

The weekend made for a murky picture in the South — as well as the North, for that matter — and only Colorado should be counted out. But for the Sun Devils the point is this: They’re still alive.

With home games left against Stanford, Utah and Washington State and road games against Washington, Oregon State and Arizona, the road to repeat in the South won’t be easy and ASU still needs help.

UCLA holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over ASU but the Bruins still must play Oregon, Cal, Arizona, Washington, USC and Stanford. The Wildcats, though, have to be considered the front-runner for now but still must to play USC, Washington State, UCLA, Washington and Utah before finishing the regular season against the Sun Devils.

After such a wild weekend, it’s hard to predict how anything will play out in the Pac-12 going forward, but Bercovici perhaps put ASU’s approach best.

"For this team, this is a win and another step closer to the Rose Bowl," Bercovici said. "Like I said, we just go 1-0 every single week."

ASU gets a bye week this week before hosting No. 25 Stanford (3-2, 1-1) on Oct. 18. The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.

Hail Mary chances don’t come along often, but ASU was prepared when one did Saturday.

"We practice that play every Thursday, and our coaches put the same amount of stress on a Thursday practice like it was on the field," Bercovici said.

How often does the play work in practice?

"I don’t know the percentage, but it’s not too often we complete that pass," Bercovici said. "I’ve never been able to throw a Hail Mary (in a game) before. I’d like to think I’d be good at it. To be honest, I didn’t think I threw it that well."

Regardless of the success rate in practice, ASU came ready for the Hail Mary scenario. The Sun Devils certainly aren’t the only ones — UA won on a Hail Mary against Cal last weekend — and it stands to reason Pac-12 teams might start practice defense of the play a little more often.

USC coach Steve Sarkisian said USC practices defending such a play, but it didn’t work out for the Trojans on Saturday.

"We would have liked to have more bodies around the ball," Sarkisian said. "You try to practice and execute and you try to get people on both sides of the ball. We practice it, and I’m sure ASU did too, and they made the play."

Just about everything in ASU’s win was overlooked by the final play, but among the bigger aspects was ASU’s bounce-back effort on defense.

"I believe we played a better defense this week," coach Todd Graham said.

A week after giving up 580 yards to UCLA — the most under a Graham-coached ASU defense — the unit gave up 493 to USC. It’s most important series came in the final three minutes of the game, when it held firm to force USC into a three-and-out, setting up ASU’s final drive. That should be a shot of confidence for an inexperienced group, especially after giving up a long touchdown run the previous series.

"We were bummed out that we gave up that long run (on the previous series)," safety Jordan Simone said. "It just shows you the heart of our defense, really coming together when things are the hardest, bending but not breaking."

A few other highlights worth noting:

— Simone’s 20 tackles were the most by an ASU player since linebacker Mark Tingstad hit that mark in 1988.

— Freshman D.J. Calhoun had a big night with his first career sack among nine tackles, 2-1/2 for loss.

— ASU previously struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, entering the game averaging 6.75 tackles for loss (27 total) and 1.75 sacks per game (seven total). Against USC, ASU collected 10 tackles for loss and three sacks.

— An overlooked and potentially huge factor in setting up ASU’s final drive: USC quarterback Cody Kessler’s 18-yard punt. Kessler punted all night for USC because, Sarkisian said, its usual long snapper was out with a concussion. If USC’s regular punt team were available, ASU might not have had the chance to win like it did.

— More than once since taking over in Dec. 2011, Graham has scoffed at ASU’s perceived problem with winning in the state of California. In his two-plus seasons, ASU has now won three regular seasons games in the state, as many as it won there in the previous 10 seasons. All three of those are conference wins, the same number of conference wins ASU had in California over the previous 13 seasons.

— Senior running back Kyle Middlebrooks took over kickoff return duties Saturday and looked good doing it. His 47-yard return to open the game was ASU’s longest since Rashad Ross returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in 2012. Expect Middlebrooks to continue handling kickoffs.

— Quarterback Taylor Kelly missed his second straight game with a right foot injury but is expected back against Stanford. A positive sign in his recovery: He walked without crutches to the coin toss before the USC game, though he still wore a protective boot.

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