TEMPE, Ariz. – Their images are indelible marks on the program: Two hands seemingly out of nowhere snatching the football out of midair; a body prone on the ground, arms outstretched.
The first is of receiver Jaelen Strong; the second, quarterback Mike Bercovici.
They are forever linked in the history of Arizona State football.
It was two years ago, the last time the Sun Devils visited the Coliseum, where they’ll be this Saturday afternoon to play host USC.
“I just remember Mike Bercovici falling face first in the grass, lying there,” junior running back Demario Richard said. “And I remember the picture of me jumping into the pile when Jaelen was trying to get from up under the pile.”
Bercovici’s 46-yard Hail Mary pass to Strong — now known as the Jael Mary — stunned those in attendance that early October evening. The 38-34 win snapped ASU’s seven-game road losing streak at USC.
“It was insane. It’s crazy because right before that play the whole sideline was just kind of hoping and wishing and praying and it ended up working out in our favor,” junior running back Kalen Ballage said. “My eyes were closed. My eyes were completely closed. I was on the sidelines with my fingers crossed. I think I was holding somebody’s hand — and I can’t remember whose it was, but we just heard the stadium go crazy and we looked up and it was all over the (video) screens and stuff like that and we ended up celebrating.”
In his 11 seasons as a college head coach, Todd Graham has been part of several big wins and big moments, but that win on that play, “it don’t get any better. There’s not one that ranks higher” he said Thursday.
“That will always be a special moment to me, and I would love to go create another one.”
Maybe a little less dramatic this time.
“Obviously, we got to stop the run. They got the two best running backs that we’ll have played against. Probably won’t play against better,” Graham said, referring to senior Justin Davis and sophomore Ronald Jones II, both of whom average better than four yards a carry. “The receivers are big, physical. Tight ends the same way. They’re very capable of being very explosive.”
Has it been shown yet? No.
USC (1-3) is only scoring 22 points a game, a mark that ranks last in the Pac-12 and 106th nationally.
Just four games into the season, people are beginning to openly question the hiring of head coach Clay Helton and the play-calling ability of offensive coordinator Tee Martin.
“They’ve played Alabama and Stanford and Utah. I just think they’ve played really good people and have been in very close games. Obviously, they got beat pretty soundly by Alabama, Stanford was fairly close, and Utah was a very close game,” Graham said. “They turned the ball over and kind of hurt themselves, but they’re just as talented as any team we’ll play. This is probably the most talented team, physically, speed-wise that we’re going to play against.
“Their record is not indicative of what type of team they are.”
Only once before in the team’s history have the Sun Devils won consecutive trips to the Coliseum. That occurred in 1986 and 1991.
“That’s a legendary win for our school and our program, but hopefully it doesn’t have to come down to that again this week,” Richard said, looking back at the 2014 victory. “But that’s something you’ll never forget, winning on a Hail Mary against USC in the Coliseum.”
— Graham ruled out junior linebacker Christian Sam. This will be the fourth straight game Sam has missed because of an ankle injury he suffered in the season opener against Northern Arizona. Senior defensive tackle Viliami Latu is expected to play despite being limited in practice with an apparent knee issue.
— Graham added redshirt senior receiver Tim White went through a full week of practice and should be “close to full speed”. White has been “pretty hampered by his ankle,” according to Graham. White is the Sun Devils’ leading pass-catcher with 21 receptions for 221 yards, and that’s with missing the Texas-San Antonio game.
— Not everyone is a believer yet in ASU. Yes, they’ve won each of their first four games, but according to those in the know, i.e. oddsmakers, USC is expected to win the matchup.
“We’ve always been underdogs,” Ballage said. “Everybody always counts us out. They don’t think or expect us to win football games. It’s spawning a fire inside this football team and it’s growing more and more every day. If that’s what people want to do, we kind of like it now. We got a chip on our shoulder, and we just go out and play football.”
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