ASU rewind: Sun Devils dominate, move on quickly
After Arizona State’s win over Arizona on Saturday, the road to the Rose Bowl runs through Tempe.
ASU dominated UA to keep the Territorial Cup in Tempe and, more importantly, secure home-field advantage for next week’s Pac-12 championship game against Stanford, with the winner moving on to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
While the win was sweet, ASU moved on quickly. Coach Todd Graham in particular appeared more businesslike in his celebration than a year ago, when he ran along UA’s sidelines with the Territorial Cup trophy above his head. This year, he raised it in the air only briefly for a photo opportunity.
“That game meant a lot to us tonight,” Graham said. “I know it’s the most important game to our fans, but it’s not the one that we’re after. The one we’re after is next week.”
By now, ASU is already focused on preparation for the biggest home game in program history and how to beat Stanford in its second chance to do so this season. Before we look forward with the Sun Devils, here’s one more look back at their win Saturday.
When ASU went ahead 20-0 midway through the second quarter, it appeared UA needed a touchdown drive to remain in the game. After driving into Sun Devils’ territory, the Wildcats had three downs to get three yards for a first down. Running back Ka’Deem Carey and quarterback B.J. Denker got one each, but Carey was stopped short on fourth down. ASU then went ahead 27-0, and Arizona never got back in the game.
Running back D.J. Foster. Starting in place of injured Marion Grice, Foster had the best game of his career, rushing for a personal-best 124 yards and two touchdowns along with 26 receiving yards. Foster earned Bob Moran Territorial Cup MVP honors for the performance.
Safety Damarious Randall. The sophomore led the team with 12 tackles, but it was his 64-yard interception return for a touchdown that made his performance special. The pick-six came on a crucial third down when UA was driving and looking to cut ASU’s lead to nine points. The interception pretty much ended the Wildcats’ hopes of a rally. Randall also had a tackle for loss and forced fumble.
THREE THINGS WE LEARNED
— The offense can work without Marion Grice. Let’s get this out of the way first: ASU’s offense is obviously better with Grice in it. That said, it looked pretty good without him Saturday, racking up 478 yards and scoring a Territorial Cup-record 58 points. Sure, it came against the Pac-12’s ninth-ranked defense, and those kinds of results seem impossible to duplicate against Stanford next week, but the performance was impressive nonetheless.
As Todd Graham noted in his postgame press conference, this offense is much more than one person. Grice is a key part of the offense, but he’s not the only one. Foster stepped in with a career game. Taylor Kelly threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns. Jaelen Strong had 142 receiving yards on four catches. Tight end De’Marieya Nelson had two touchdowns in a prominent H-back role.
The depth of ASU’s offense is truly demonstrated when missing a key piece. The Sun Devils have weapons all over the field, and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell clearly knows how to use them. The running back depth seems particularly crucial right now, as Foster is as good a No. 2 option as you might find in the country.
The Grice-less offense likely won’t have as much success against Stanford next week, but playing at home, where ASU is averaging 49.1 points per game, should help the Sun Devils’ rhythm. In case you missed it Saturday, Grice is not expected to play next week.
— The defense is only getting better. Every time it looks like the unit has turned in its best performance of the season, it goes out and tops itself. The numbers did not show it, but Saturday’s defensive performance may have been ASU’s best of the year.
The Sun Devils knew Ka’Deem Carey was going to get his yards — he got 157, about his season average — but his impact was relatively mild considering the Wildcats only scored three times and Carey once. It was the job ASU did against UA quarterback B.J. Denker that impressed most. Denker is not close to being a top-tier quarterback, but ASU forced him into perhaps his worst game of the season. He completed only half his 30 pass attempts, threw for just 175 yards and tossed three interceptions after only being picked off four times previously all season.
After its fifth interception return for a touchdown and three total picks Saturday, the defense is truly peaking at the right time. ASU faces a big, big challenge in No. 8 Stanford next week, and the defense will need another strong performance. The Cardinal ran all over the Sun Devils in Palo Alto earlier this season, so it’s imperative ASU stop the run next week. While that will certainly be a challenge, if ASU can score like it did Saturday, the defense might have a little breathing room.
— ASU’s season should be considered an unquestioned success. The Sun Devils may not acknowledge this as being a successful season if it ends anywhere short of the Rose Bowl, but externally, it would be very hard to call this season anything but.
Consider the following, in addition to a second straight Territorial Cup win: ASU has 10 wins for the first time since 2007 with two games still to play; the Sun Devils have the best conference record in the Pac-12 and went undefeated in November two seasons after going winless in the month; the Pac-12 title game will be played in Tempe next week, giving ASU perhaps its biggest home game ever; and with one more victory, ASU would reach 11 wins for the first time since the 1996 Rose Bowl team and just the sixth time in program history.
All that adds up to a pretty impressive year for the program, and there could be more to come. Even if ASU doesn’t beat Stanford next week, it could end up in its best bowl game since the 1997 Rose Bowl and at least its best since the 2007 Holiday Bowl. That may not be what the team aimed for, but you’ll struggle to find a fan not pleased with that kind of season or the job Graham is doing with the program.
WHERE THEY STAND
After a big offensive night and average defensive numbers, ASU is up and down, respectively, in the national rankings. Here’s where the Sun Devils stand with two games left to play:
— Total offense: 21st with 473.3 yards per game (up from 22nd)
— Total defense: 24th with 351.0 yards allowed per game (down from 19th)
— Scoring offense: 8th with 43.3 points per game (up from 10th)
— Scoring defense: T-49th with 24.8 points allowed per game (up from 53rd)
— Rushing defense: 27th with 133.8 rushing yards allowed per game (down from 19th)
— Passing defense: 40th with 217.2 passing yards allowed per game (up from 49th)
— Fewest penalty yards per game: 3rd with 28.50 penalty yards per game (up from 4th)
ODDS AND ENDS
— With Saturday’s 58-point performance, ASU’s offense has reached 50 points six times in a season for the first time in program history.
— After Saturday’s win, ASU is now 7-0 at Sun Devil Stadium this season and has beaten opponents by an average margin of 28.3 points. The last time — and only time in the past 16 seasons — ASU went undefeated at home was in 2004, when it went 6-0.
— With three field goals made Saturday, freshman Zane Gonzalez set a new ASU record for consecutive field goals made. He has connected on 18 in a row, eclipsing Thomas Weber’s record of 17 in 2007. Gonzalez is 22 of 25 on the season and has not missed since ASU lost to Stanford on Sept. 21.
— After Randall’s interception return for a touchdown Saturday, ASU has five pick-sixes on the season. The Sun Devils had just four interceptions returned for touchdowns in the previous three seasons before Graham arrived.
— Strong went over 1,000 receiving yards on the season Saturday (he has 1,067), becoming just the second ASU receiver to reach the mark in the past eight seasons. ASU’s last 1,000-yard receiver was Gerell Robinson in 2011.
— With his touchdown pass to tight end Darwin Rogers on Saturday, quarterback Taylor Kelly set a new school record for points responsible for in a season, breaking Mike Pagel’s 1981 record of 198.
— Tight end De’Marieya Nelson entered Saturday night with one rush for zero yards this season. With Grice absent, Nelson got eight carries and tallied 35 yards and two touchdowns.
— ASU shut out its opponent in the first quarter for the seventh time this season. The Sun Devils now have done that 13 times under Graham and are undefeated when doing so.
— Some personnel notes: Spur linebacker Viliami Moeakiola missed his third straight game with a knee injury. … Cornerback Lloyd Carrington got his first career start Saturday when ASU opened with a nickel package. … Wide receiver Joe Morris was listed among the seniors playing their final regular-season home game, but he did not participate in senior night activities. He was ruled a senior last week after ASU learned he had enrolled but not played at another junior college, but he and ASU are appealing the ruling. … Defensive lineman Junior Onyeali did not participate in senior night activities either, suggesting he may petition for a medical redshirt and an additional year of eligibility for next season.
ASU host the Pac-12 championship game against No. 8 Stanford next week. The game kicks off at 5:45 p.m. MT and airs on ESPN. The Cardinal beat the Sun Devils 42-28 in Palo Alto earlier this season.