PASADENA, Calif. – Admit it, you were waiting for them to blow it.
The Arizona State Sun Devils played their best half of football in the first 30 minutes against UCLA at the Rose Bowl Saturday, and they needed every bit of the 22-point lead they were able to build.
ASU teams of the past would have wilted under the onslaught of pressure the Bruins provided in the second half. But it was Todd Graham’s Sun Devils that made just enough plays to hang on and win 38-33, clinching the Pac-12 South in the process.
Here are six things that stood out to me from Saturday night’s game.
Taylor Kelly is a championship-level quarterback – Did anyone else get the feeling that the ASU signal caller got sick and tired of hearing that he wasn’t as good as UCLA’s Brett Hundley? ASU fans lament the fact that Hundley, who starred at Chandler High in the Sun Devils’ backyard, got away and went to UCLA. But you know what? Kelly is pretty damn good.
The junior from Eagle, Idaho completed 20-of-27 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown. More importantly, he ran for a career-high 99 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts. And most importantly, he ran a Sun Devil attack that did not turn the ball over in the game.
Earlier this season, Graham lauded Kelly as a “championship-level” quarterback — a comment that most dismissed after he struggled in losses to Stanford and Notre Dame. But Kelly proved his coach right Saturday.
Without a doubt, Hundley is the better pro prospect of the two, but right now, Kelly is the better college quarterback.
Defensive dominance – OK, maybe dominance is a strong word. But when you rack up nine quarterback sacks against anyone, your defense deserves some accolades. That’s what the Sun Devils did Saturday. They constantly pressured and battered Hundley. Carl Bradford, who spent a good portion of the second half of last week’s win over Oregon State on the bench after a verbal spat with head coach Todd Graham, was a beast in the first half in Pasadena.
Bradford’s 18-yard interception return for a touchdown put Arizona State up 21-10. Then in the second half, linebacker Chris Young took over where Bradford left off. On a crucial third down with ASU leading by five and UCLA deep in Sun Devils’ territory, Young made the biggest play of the game, sacking Hundley for a 13-yard loss all the way back to the 20-yard line. UCLA kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn then missed a 37-yard field goal, allowing the Devils to dodge a bullet and keep the lead at five points.
Special teams not so special – For as well as the offense and defense performed at times throughout the game, the ASU special teams stunk out loud for the most part. UCLA cornerback Ishmael Adams, who hadn’t returned a punt or a kickoff all season long, scorched the Sun Devils in the return game. The sophomore averaged 37 yards per kickoff return and took his only punt return back 49 yards to set up a field goal.
In the third quarter, ASU punter Alex Garoutte couldn’t handle a low snap from Easton Wahlstrom and UCLA’s Anthony Barr recovered at the Sun Devils’ 15-yard line. Four plays later, Paul Perkins (another Valley high school product) scored from one yard out to pull to within eight points at 35-27.
The punters, who have struggled all year, did so again Saturday. Garoutte and Matt Haack averaged 33.5 yards per punt on four attempts.
But it wasn’t all bad…freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez booted a huge 28-yard field goal late in the third quarter which capped a 14-play, 64-yard drive that melted nearly seven minutes off the clock. Gonzalez has now made 15 straight field goal attempts. His last miss was a 45-yarder against Stanford in September.
He’s no Gordie Lockbaum – The UCLA player garnering the most attention heading into this game was freshman linebacker Myles Jack. The 18-year-old was tied for third on the Bruins’ roster in total tackles with 67. But in the last few weeks, he’s made offensive headlines, busting a 66-yard touchdown run in the Bruins’ win over Arizona and finding the end zone four more times against Washington last week.
Jack had an imprint on Saturday’s game as well, running for 86 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Twitter was blowing up during the contest singing the praises of this two-way super star. Except for one thing, Jack didn’t play on defense.
Yes, you read that right. Jack was a full-time tailback Saturday while UCLA’s defense was gashed by the Sun Devils for 261 yards on the ground. Bruins’ head coach Jim Mora explained that his team was just too beat up at running back — they needed Jack’s explosiveness on offense. But they certainly could have used his presence on the defensive side of the ball.
How crazy is the Pac-12? – Following their win over UCLA, coupled with Arizona’s rout of Oregon, the Sun Devils are positioned to host the Pac-12 Championship Game against Stanford December 7. Yes, you read that right. This year’s Territorial Cup battle will have more on the line than bragging rights.
The South was supposed to be an afterthought in the Pac-12 discussion this year. Oregon and Stanford dominated the preseason headlines, and many pundits picked one of the two to play for the BCS title.
But as we near December, it’s two teams from the South that are playing the best football in the conference. The Sun Devils have won six straight, while the resurgent USC Trojans have reeled off a 6-1 record and five straight wins since leaving disgraced head coach Lane Kiffin in a parking lot following a beat down at the hands of ASU.
Business-like approach – If you’re an ASU fan, you’ve got to love the fact that the Sun Devils took care of item number one on their to-do list themselves. They controlled their own destiny and pulled out a win over a good football team to clinch the South.
There was some celebrating on the field, but nothing over the top. Graham, who has repeatedly talked about winning championships since stepping on campus, got his first, but glossed over it for the most part. Graham reiterated after the game that he wants Pac-12 championships and Rose Bowl titles. This is simply the first necessary step to get to the ultimate destination. The celebration was respectful, and definitely still featured an eye toward the future.
I can’t stress enough how impressed I am with what Graham and his staff have done in a short time at Arizona State – the Sun Devils are one win away from going to the Rose Bowl for the third time in their history. Raise your hand if you thought that was even a remote possibility 23 months ago.
Yeah, I didn’t think so.