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Improbable as it seems, ASU is 5-1 after win over UCLA

Arizona State players celebrate beating UCLA after an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State defeated UCLA 23-20. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Something about an ASU-UCLA matchup brings out the weird in both teams.

In 2011, Dennis Erickson’s last as ASU coach, UCLA converted a 3rd-and-29 on the go-ahead touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter and Alex Garoutte missed his third field goal of the game in the closing seconds at the Rose Bowl as UCLA held on for a 29-28 win that started ASU’s slide from a 6-2 beginning to a 6-7 finish.

In 2012, UCLA beat ASU on a Ka’imi Fairbairn 33-yard field goal as time expired to push the Bruins to a second straight Pac-12 South crown. Last season, the Sun Devils posted their only signature win of a dismal 6-7 season with a stunning 38-23 win at the Rose Bowl that cost the Bruins a share of the division title.

On Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium, the Bruins and Sun Devils were up to their old tricks. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen threw for 400 yards, ASU lost second-string quarterback Brady White to a foot injury in the fourth quarter and yet the Sun Devils emerged with a 23-20 win that pushed their record to 5-1 at the midpoint of the season — and 2-1 in Pac-12 play, which is good enough for a share of the South Division lead with Utah and Colorado.

Let that sink for a moment.

“I am just really proud of our football team,” coach Todd Graham said. “I don’t think many people thought we would win tonight, but we did. I challenged our guys not to listen to what other people say because all that matters is the turnout of the games. UCLA ended up with minus-one rushing yards and we had a championship defensive performance.”

That was a welcome sight for the Sun Devils, who entered the game with the nation’s 121st ranked defense and the 128th ranked (dead last) passing defense.

ASU did allow 444 passing yards to Rosen and backup Mike Fafaul, who came in for a spell while Rosen was injured, but the Sun Devils shut down the Bruins’ rushing attack, they sacked UCLA QBs five times, they intercepted three passes and ASU also recovered a fumble.

Marcus Ball was a heat-seeking missile at boundary safety, recording a team-high 10 tackles and a pick in an effort he said ASU had to have.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Ball said. “Brady White stepped up and threw some tremendous passes and the receivers made some tremendous catches but we knew to win this game we were going to have to bunker down and play some tremendous defense and that’s what we did in the second half.”

Sustaining that may prove increasingly vital for ASU. White, who completed 19 of 36 passes for 179 yards with an interception and a TD, had to be helped off the field in the fourth quarter and Graham said after the game that his prognosis did not look good. With Manny Wilkins still nursing a sore knee, and erstwhile third-string QB Bryce Perkins still working his way back from a neck injury, the Sun Devils may be forced to go with true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole as they hit the road for a matchup with Colorado on Saturday.

Sterling-Cole’s only pass attempt on Saturday was an interception in the end zone that could have proved costly if the defense had not saved the day. When asked who Sterling-Cole’s backup would be if none of the Sun Devils top three QBs are ready to go, Graham smiled.

“Mike Graham,” he said. “That’s my 14-year-old (son).”

The backup will actually be freshman receiver Jack Smith (baseball coach Tracy Smith’s son), but the Devils hope it won’t get that far.

“Hopefully we’ll have Manny back,” Graham said, “but we’ll figure out a way.”

Halfway through the season, ASU has done just that.

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