ASU knocks off UCLA in home finale, earns bowl eligibility
TEMPE, Ariz. — A lot was riding on Saturday’s game against the UCLA Bruins for the Arizona State Sun Devils.
ASU entered its senior day and home finale needing just one win in their final three games to become bowl eligible.
The Sun Devils took home a close 31-28 win over UCLA at Sun Devil Stadium, a task that proved tough for the Pac-12 South leaders.
“Going into this, I never felt good about this game,” ASU head coach Herm Edwards said after the game. “I just knew it would come down to this, I knew it was going to be a one-score game.
“I kept warning the players, this is the type of game it’s going to be and lo and behold it showed up.”
Edwards was right on the money as UCLA looked more like a team with more wins than just two in the first half.
The Bruins came out firing following an ASU field goal, scoring on their opening drive to take an early 7-3 lead.
And while ASU responded with a second-quarter score, the Sun Devil defense had a hard time getting the Bruins off the field.
At one point in the second quarter, the Bruins had converted five of their six third-down conversions, keeping their drives alive and the ASU defense off the sidelines.
“Like I said, this was going to be their hardest game and I said it. I said it last week, I told the coaches, I told the players this will be the hardest game you’ll ever play,” Edwards said.
“You could just sense, you could just feel it. I didn’t sleep all last week because I knew it, I knew it would be a tough game.”
Even when it looked like the Sun Devils had momentum on their side, the Bruins would find a spark to stay within arm’s reach.
Bruins tight end Caleb Wilson was enemy No. 1 for the Sun Devils. He torched ASU’s defense for 164 yards and two touchdowns on 11 catches.
“The tight end was the one,” Edwards said. “He was the one I was concerned about the whole game because every time I turned around he was catching the ball.
“He’s probably open right now.”
UCLA’s defense was also a big part in keeping it close as they turned a Manny Wilkins interception into points and a 14-10 lead with 4:36 left in the half.
But just as it looked ASU was going to have to come from behind in the second half, Wilkins went work.
With 3:38 left to play, the senior quarterback marched his team 75 yards in 10 plays, capping off the drive with a five-yard touchdown to Nick Ralston with just 58 seconds until halftime.
“Just stay the course, good things happen,” Wilkins said. “They knew what we were going to run, we knew what they were going to run. It’s all about who wants it more.”
Holding a 17-14 lead to start the third quarter, ASU turned to its dynamic running game, a.k.a Eno Benjamin, to get things rolling offensively.
The running back got the call six out of seven times on their opening drive in the second half, carrying the rock 74 yards and ending the drive with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone.
It was more than just another touchdown for Benjamin, however, as the running back reached 1,238 yards on the season, breaking an ASU single-season rushing record that was set by Ryan Torain in 2006.
Benjamin now has the most yards in program history since joining the Pac-10/12 40 years ago in 1978. He finished with 182 yards.
“I just want to win games,” Benjamin said after he was told he had broken the record after the game.
“We want team accolades,” Wilkins added. “Team accolades lead to personal accolades, personal accolades lead to everybody getting a bag.”
And just as the offense started moving the chains, the defense found its stride.
After UCLA converted five of their eight third down tries in the first half, they were stymied in the second, converting just two of eight in the half.
“We got them in some bad downs on first down, made some negative plays and you know Chip [Kelly] is an excellent play caller,” Edwards said of the defensive effort on third down. “He attacks your defense and when he gets it going he repeats plays.”
But even with ASU started to click on both sides of the football, UCLA wouldn’t go away.
Down 31-28, the Bruins had one last chance on offense. With 1:33 left to play, UCLA was sitting at its own 20 yard-line.
But UCLA would only be able to must 21 yards before defensive lineman Tyler Johnson and the ASU fans closed out the game, causing a sack and two false start penalties to kill any offense the Bruins had left.
“The defense made some critical stops and then at the end it was the fans,” Edwards said of the late stop. “All of a sudden we had the 12th person in the stadium. They got two penalties with 22 seconds running off the clock, couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”
And while the 31-28 win pushed ASU into bowl eligibility, Wilkins and the Sun Devils aren’t ready to cruise to the finish line.
“Happy,” Wilkins said when asked how he was feeling after winning his final home game as a Sun Devil. “I’m ecstatic, blessed to be a part of this football team. “I think you could see the look in our eyes. We sure wanted it and we still want it and we’ve got two left and it’s time to move on.”
ASU now has two games remaining in the regular season with Pac-12 title hopes firmly in their heads.
Up next, the Sun Devils head to Oregon to take on the Ducks.
– Not only did Ralston score in the home finale, it was also his birthday.
– Merlin Robertson was ejected in the third quarter for targeting.
“That’s a tough rule and I get the rule, It’s just hard,” Edwards said. “He got kicked out in the beginning of the half so I think he’s good, he can actually play next week. That’s a tough call for an official to make, it really is because it’s a bang-bang play and when they say he’s out, he’s out. Can’t argue with that.”
– Edwards high school football coach was in the stands on Saturday.
“That’s the man who taught me football, and we ran the ball in high school. I learned a lot from that man about the toughness and what it took to run the football. … I lost one football game in three years with that man. Fabulous coach, fabulous man.”