When it comes to accolades and attention placed upon the Arizona State Sun Devils’ defense, most of it goes to Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Alden Darby, Chris Young and Osahon Irabor.
There’s a good reason for that. That group has served as a the backbone for a unit that has improved greatly over the last five games and is a big reason why the Devils are one game away from capturing the Pac-12 South title.
But there’s another member of the defense who has been just as instrumental during this stretch of wins.
Senior cornerback Robert Nelson, maligned for much of the season for his troubles in the punt return game, had his fingerprints all over ASU’s 30-17 win over Oregon State Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
Nelson had five total tackles, recovered a muffed punt and picked off two Sean Mannion passes, including a 23-yard pick-six late in the fourth quarter that essentially iced the game for the Sun Devils.
The redshirt senior from Lakeland, Fla. deflected the praise heaped upon him.
“I just want to give credit to the D-line and the other members of the defense, without them, it couldn’t happen,” he said. “I was just in the right coverage and I read the quarterback and broke on the ball and made a great play.
“But the credit goes to my team, my defense.”
Nelson has had a knack for making the big interception at crucial times. His fourth-quarter pick of UA’s Matt Scott and 66-yard return to the 2-yard line helped the Sun Devils seal a 41-34 Territorial Cup win in Tucson last November.
Last week, Nelson had another fourth-quarter pick, intercepting Utah’s Travis Wilson with just over two and a half minutes to go during ASU’s 20-19 win.
Nelson’s touchdown was the first of his career and the third of the season for a hungry ASU defense that intercepted Mannion four times. The Oregon State quarterback had thrown only six picks prior to Saturday night.
“That was probably Robert’s best game — he’s been clutch for us,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “When he sees the ball come out of the quarterback’s hand, he is really gifted. So it’s our job to put him positions to do that.”
Nelson’s statistics were impressive, but Graham was more impressed with the assignment the senior had and how he handled it.
“He also, very quietly, basically covered bump-and-run man on Brandin Cooks every single play and did a phenomenal job,” he said.
Cooks came into the game as the nation’s leading receiver and still managed nine catches for 99 yards, but was held out of the end zone for just the second time this season.
“(Nelson) is one of my favorite guys. He’s a challenge six days a week, but I love having him on game day,” Graham said.
And lately, Sun Devil fans would agree with him.