Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly starts slow, finishes strong in Sun Devils’ Senior Day win
TEMPE, Ariz. — You can’t pull your senior quarterback on Senior Day, can you?
It’s safe to assume the majority of the 51,428 fans at Sun Devil Stadium Saturday wanted Arizona State head coach Todd Graham to do just that.
The once-vaunted Sun Devil offense looked broken early on with senior Taylor Kelly at the controls. ASU went backward in the first quarter — literally — for minus-23 yards on its first four possessions.
After Washington State freshman Luke Falk hit Isiah Myers on a 20-yard touchdown pass with 4:52 to go in the second quarter, Washington State led 21-7. The natives were restless.
But as he has since Kelly’s return from a foot injury four games ago, Graham showed patience and loyalty toward his quarterback. Kelly responded by completing 15-of-25 passes for 232 yards and four touchdowns in ASU’s 52-31 win that kept them in the running for the Pac-12 South title.
“We had to come out and execute, and we weren’t doing that early on,” Kelly said following his last home game in Tempe. “We kind of lost our focus, I think, at the beginning of the game.
What helped the Sun Devils dial in that focus was an opportunistic defense that forced five Washington State turnovers. All five led to Arizona State touchdowns.
“Our defense did a great job again. They’re unbelievable,” Kelly said. “We can always rely on them and they rely on (the offense). That’s what a great team is.”
It was another steady, yet unspectacular, performance for Kelly, whose career has been defined by them. The Eagle, Idaho native has been the subject of consternation for ASU fans for most of the season. A seemingly ever-growing faction of supporters have jumped on the “Mike Bercovici should start” bandwagon, based on his production during three starts in Kelly’s absence.
It didn’t take long for the vocal anti-Kelly sentiment to pop up again Saturday. Social media swirled with insults and the crowd even booed after another three-and-out series that ended in a Matt Haack punt.
The critics have had an effect on the quarterback, according to his head coach.
“I think that the criticism has affected him — I’m not saying that it’s affected his play at all,” Graham said. “I’m going to tell you that no one is harder on him than him. It has been a struggle. It hasn’t been like getting right back on the bike and have it be just like it was before.
“But, you know what? We’re sitting here with nine wins. I’m so proud of this program. That’s 27 wins in three years — that’s averaging nine per year. That’s not bad. And we’re not done yet.”
They’re not. Arizona State still has to go down to Tucson to take on arch-rival Arizona next Friday in a game that could determine the Pac-12 South championship. Graham will continue to ride with Kelly as his quarterback.
“I’m not changing quarterbacks with the wind, sorry,” he said. “I’ll be hired and fired on my decisions and I’m always going to make the decisions myself.
“I hope that people respect that.”
Kelly, incidentally, is 2-0 in his career against Arizona. He’ll have the opportunity to win his third the day after Thanksgiving.
Graham thanked all 13 members of the ASU senior class, but elaborated on the quarterback who defied the odds to win the starting job in fall camp three seasons ago.
“In particular, I want to thank him. No one that’s outside this program knows what that young man has meant to our program,” Graham said. “Just from a character standpoint and how he leads. There is not a player on our team he doesn’t interact with. That is strange. That is not normal.
“He is just the most humble and gracious person that has been absolutely remarkable. I’m just thrilled that he was able to finish his Senior Day like that.”