TEMPE, Ariz. — If you don’t practice you don’t play.
That’s the rule of thumb for most coaches when determining player availability heading into a football game at most levels of the sport. Arizona State head coach Todd Graham is also a believer in that rule. So when senior linebacker Antonio Longino was able to participate in only four practice reps Thursday heading into the Sun Devils’ Homecoming game against Washington, it looked like he’d sit it out for the second straight week due to a hamstring injury.
But not only did Longino play, he dominated, racking up seven total tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and a pass breakup in Arizona State’s come-from-behind 27-17 win over the Huskies before 51,695 fans at Sun Devil Stadium.
“My team needed me,” Longino deadpanned following the win, which broke a three-game losing streak and evened the Sun Devils’ record at 5-5 on the season. “Just to pick them up on and off the field, that’s what I came out there to do.”
It didn’t look good early for ASU. In fact, it looked like three straight close losses punctuated by seemingly weekly apologies from the Pac-12 office about costly officiating blunders had taken their toll. The Sun Devils fell behind 17-0 midway through the second quarter. Their defense was gashed for 341 yards by a Washington offense that came into the game ranked 11th in the conference.
But led by Longino, the ASU defense dug in, pitched a second-half shutout and forced Washington turnovers on four straight possessions to end the game.
Graham has spoken in the past about being inspired by the play of former two-time Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, namely in ASU’s South Division-clinching 38-33 win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl in 2013.
He was reminded of it Saturday.
“Antonio Longino inspired me in the same way,” he said. “He should not even have played. In fact, I don’t let you play if you don’t practice. He took four reps on Thursday and in no way did he need to play, in my opinion.”
He let me know that it wasn’t going to be my decision. Just the way he inspired his teammates and the way he played, I was inspired.”
So was the rest of the team.
“That was my last time playing them,” Longino said. “This is like my last two or three games here and I’m not passing them up.”
It was exactly the kind of performance that Arizona State needed. In addition to riding a losing streak and trailing by 17 points, they lost starting spur linebacker Laiu Moekiola to a shoulder injury and safety Jordan Simone to a knee injury on the same play in the second quarter. Graham said after the game he fears Simone’s injury appeared to be serious.
But with second and third-stringers on the field in the second half, ASU actually played better, spurred on by Longino.
“He had tears in his eyes in the first half,” Graham said. “He was bringing it. He was inspiring his teammates. It wasn’t going very well and that’s about as uncomfortable as I’ve been in a game since I’ve been here. You’re trying to keep the walls from falling in because so many things were happening — you’re losing one guy right after another and that was difficult.
“I was really proud of him.”