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ASU defense shines, Ruiz hits game-winner in upset of Michigan State

Front from left to right; Arizona State' Darien Butler, Shannon Forman, Jarrett Bell, and Michael Sleep-Dalton celebrate with teammates after an NCAA college football game win against Michigan State Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State defeated Michigan State 16-13. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona State Sun Devils (2-0) upset No. 15 Michigan State (1-1) on Saturday night by shining in the phase of the game that had been scrutinized at the season’s beginning: defense.

Coming into the year, college football observers knew about junior wide receiver N’Keal Harry and senior quarterback Manny Wilkins. But the credentials were fewer for the ASU defense, one that started two freshmen on Saturday under its first-year head coach Herm Edwards and defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales.

That defense now has a statement performance under its belt: Holding ranked MSU to 13 points.

“Defenses both sides played really well, but our defense — man, I’m really proud of them and how they played,” Wilkins said. “It was a hell of an effort on their part and without them we would not win this game.”

At one point, ASU captured a critical interception in the end zone, courtesy of defensive back Dasmond Tautalatasi. The Michigan State receiver bobbled the ball in the air, a fortunate bounce for Arizona State that may have saved a touchdown, and the game.

This is to say that the Spartans put pressure on ASU in the red zone and had a few big gains in the middle of the field. But fortunately for the Sun Devils’ sake, MSU had just one touchdown in its four trips to the inside of the 20, and the sparse scoring by the Spartans was just enough to set up the game-winning play.

As the clock wound down in the final quarter, Arizona State was first and goal at the six yard line. Instead of trying first for a touchdown, the Sun Devils knelt three times to wind the clock to 00:03 remaining, and kicker Brandon Ruiz trotted out and nailed the field goal to make it 16-13 ASU.

“I think congratulations has to be given to our coaching staff and our players, in the sense when you play a game like this against a team that has a lot of firepower … they’re historically one of those better teams in college football,” Edwards said. “How do you react? I thought our guys acted pretty good, quite honest.”

On offense, Wilkins passed for 380 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Kyle Williams paced the Sun Devils in receiving yards with 104, while Harry picked up 89 yards and a touchdown and Eno Benjamin caught for 54 yards to go with 27 rushing.

The biggest drive for ASU was a two-play, 65-yard drive in the fourth quarter that ended with Harry’s touchdown catch. The previous play was a 38-yard pass to Williams, Wilkins’ longest toss of the game.

“I don’t think I played nearly as good as I could have played tonight,” Wilkins said. “But that’s just because I’m hard on myself and I expect to do great things because I work too hard to get to where I am today.”

Edwards said he predicted the low scoring overall.

“Going into this, I knew this wasn’t going to be a high-scoring affair,” he said. “I felt like first to 10 [points] might win.”

Despite going 6-of-16 on third down and totaling 424 yards on offense compared to MSU’s 377, the Sun Devils made just two trips to the red zone and settled for field goals both times. The Spartans had more than four minutes greater possession time than ASU.

Moving forward, ASU — which can play with a more confident defense — travels for two straight weeks. Edwards and his team will first go to San Diego State in Week 3 before going to Seattle to play Washington in Week 4. Coming into this week, the Huskies were ranked No. 9 in the country.

But the Sun Devils shouldn’t feel too good about themselves: Their coaches are still preaching on room for improvement.

“Look — we’ve got a lot of work to do. We really do,” Edwards said. “We’re nowhere near my expectations. Nowhere near them.

“To these players’ credit, especially defensively, with so many young guys and so many different guys playing, they did a pretty good job. They’ve done a pretty good job the last two weeks. So we’ll see what happens.”

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