PASADENA, Calif. — Every college football coach is guilty of talking up his conference. It must be a requirement for inclusion in the fraternity.
On a conference call last week, Stanford coach David Shaw called the Pac-12’s parity and depth this season insane. UCLA coach Jim Mora described it as scary, echoing a national columnist’s opinion that it is the Hunger Games conference.
Until Saturday, all you could do was roll your eyes and chalk it up to hyperbole.
Then Arizona State 2.0 showed up in Pasadena to face No. 7 UCLA on Saturday, fresh off an embarrassing home loss to USC. There was no way the Sun Devils could perform a 180-degree turn for the second straight season in So Cal, right? There was no way they could handle UCLA’s jet-fueled offense, the one that put up 56 points in Tucson the week before.
There were too many offensive issues. The secondary was too slow. The defensive line wasn’t generating enough pressure. The special teams were a wild card on the road.
Forget all that. We give up. We know nothing about anything anymore — especially college football. ASU’s defense dominated the nation’s 22nd ranked rushing offense, holding 2014 Pac-12 rushing leader Paul Perkins to 63 yards on 18 carries as ASU walked away with a 38-23 victory at the Rose Bowl.
For the third straight season, ASU has rallied from a lopsided, early-season conference loss — just as coach Todd Graham said it would.
“You know, this program is an evolution,” Graham said with a faint smile as he took the podium in the steamy depths of the Rose Bowl for his postgame press conference. “Sometimes we want things to happen really fast and I know I do, but I’m really, really proud of how our guys came in here tonight and how they responded.
“Probably not many thought we could do what we did tonight.”
All praise for the Sun Devils’ effort on Saturday should start with the defense. As Graham noted, there wasn’t much flashy about it. The Devils didn’t blitz as much as they normally do and they only posted two sacks.
After defensive coordinator Keith Patterson called the line out this week for not winning enough one-on-one battles, however, the Devils front accomplished things the old fashioned way. They manned up and simply owned the line of scrimmage.
“I think we held their offense to like seven or eight (it was seven) yards rushing in the first half,” ASU running back Kalen Ballage said. “That’s insane. This is college football. That’s big time. A big shout-out to our defense. Without them, of course we wouldn’t have been on the field making plays.”
With ASU leading 15-10 to open the second half, the offense finally paid them back. Quarterback Mike Bercovici flashed those running legs he insisted were underrated in the preseason when he scrambled for a 34-yard score. Then D.J. Foster (remember him?) caught an 11-yard TD pass and the Devils had a 29-10 bulge.
When UCLA rallied with two scores and threatened to dredge up Dennis Erickson memories, ASU dug deep one last time and Ballage carried a wall of bodies into the end zone to ice the game.
“It looked like a rugby play,” Graham quipped.
Last week at practice, Graham turned to a group of reporters he hadn’t seen much this season to see if they had anything to ask. “I’m kind of sick of these guys,” he cracked, pointing back at the usual suspects who were slowly burying the 2015 edition of his Sun Devils.
Graham insisted everything was not lost after that demoralizing defeat to the Trojans. He insisted the Sun Devils would bounce back. Few believed him.
As a new day dawned, however, the Devils were 1-1 in conference play, trailing only Utah in the Pac-12 South.
Maybe a few more folks will believe Graham now.
“I’m not going to apologize for the expectations. I’m not going to ask our players to work like they do and have any other expectations than winning championships,” Graham said. “On the same end, I don’t blame our fans for being upset. They should be. We haven’t played very good.
“I’m pissed about. We’re pissed. We came out tonight and played pissed. Maybe we need to play pissed more often.”
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