The 8 critical steps leading up to the 'Jael Mary'Posted: Updated:
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The “Jael Mary” has already entered Arizona State lore as one of the most incredible plays in Sun Devil history.
When Jaelen Strong snagged Mike Bercovici’s Hail Mary for the touchdown, he secured ASU's first win at USC since 1999 while also keeping the Sun Devils very much in the Pac-12 South division race.
The play itself has been replayed countless times by ASU fans, and as incredible as it was, the events leading up to it were just as amazing. While it was a hard-fought Pac-12 battle between long-time rivals, the final half of the fourth quarter contained more twists and turns than a Scott Lynch novel.
To even get to the point where Bercovici heaved the ball into the Los Angeles air took a series of incredible, improbable, and just plain mind-boggling events. Should any one of them have gone differently to even a minor degree, the "Jael Mary" would never have been. Or maybe it would. After all, it's college football, where logic need not apply.
In any event, let's review the madness from Saturday night.
1) Going (almost) the distance
The Sun Devils had not found the endzone for since the mid-second quarter, a span of over 30 minutes of game time. Down 27-18 with just over six minutes left, ASU forced USC into a punt.
Any hope of decent field position was dashed when returner Damarious Randall bobbled the kick, and by the time he receovered it, the Sun Devils were backed up at their own two-yard line. Oh, and they had no timeouts.
A quick eight-yard pass to Cam Smith gave ASU some breathing room, and two plays later, Bercovici hit Strong for 28. Three straight incompletions followed, setting up a do-or-die fourth and 10. What to do? It was no secret.
The ball was going to Strong.
He pulled in a 14-yard pass and made a great effort to keep his feet in bounds, extending the drive. Bercovici was sacked on the next play, but he quickly found Fred Gammage and Ellie Jefferson to set up a first and 10 at the USC 21.
It was then time to find ASU's other go-to weapon. Depsite struggling on the ground all night long, D.J. Foster continued to be a reliable aerial target for Bercovici. He found a streaking Foster along the left seam, and the pass was on target for the score.
It capped a 10-play, 98-yard drive that most importantly consumed only 2:34 off the clock.
2) Let him score (OR "Don't take a knee")
Foster's touchdown reception had just ended a half's worth of offensive struggles for ASU and trimmed the USC lead to 27-25 with just 3:53 left in the game. With no timeouts, the Sun Devils opted for an on-side kick.
Unfortunately for ASU, Trojan tight end Randall Telfair scooped up Alex Garoutte's kick. However, there was plenty of time for the Sun Devil defense to get a quick three-and-out and give their offense a chance.
Buck Allen had other ideas.
The USC running back was stopped for a loss on the first play of the possession. On the next carry, he burst through the Sun Devil front seven and raced towards the endzone, with ASU safety Damarious Randall in hot pursuit.
Had Randall taken him down, or had Allen just fallen short of the goal line, USC very well could have run sufficient clock off to dash any Sun Devil comeback threat. Instead, Randall pulled off his chase around the 15-yard line, and Allen ran in for the touchdown with 3:02 left on the clock.
USC had scored, but valuable seconds or even minutes were spared.
3) Missed interception
ASU now had just a 4.2 percent chance of victory. Down two scores, ASU needed points in a hurry.
They got them.
After a 23-yard kickoff return by Kyle Middlebrooks, ASU took over at their 27-yard line. ASU lined up in a trips right formation, but Bercovici was flushed to his right by USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams. While on the run, Bercovici unleashed a pass intended for Cam Smith, who was heading to the sidelines.
USC defensive back Kevon Seymour made a leap to make the interception or at least knock the ball away...but he was a half step too slow.
As the ball whizzed by Seymour's outstretched hands, Smith—arguably ASU's fastest player—hauled in the pass, turned upfield, and raced 73-yards untouched for the improbable touchdown.
4) Yet ANOTHER missed on-side kick
On-side kicks are a last ditch effort for a team, and they are not often converted. Even more rare are the times when a team gets a second chance at them, but ASU found themselves in such a situation after Smith's speedy score.
There was 2:43 left on the clock, as Garoutte teed the ball and the Sun Devils readied themselves for another chance.
Rather than try the traditional on-side attempt to the sides, Garoutte squibbed the ball directly ahead of him, hoping to jump on it as soon as it reached the 10-yard mark.
However, USC linebacker Hayes Pullard was there to recover the ball. If only his hands were that good later...
5) Three and out or die
USC was a first down away from securing the win, but Jordan Simone wasn't about to let that happen.
The junior safety had already put together a terrific game, with 18 tackles prior to that drive, 10 of which were solo stops. Now, he stopped Allen on first down after a gain of just one yard, then dropped Allen for a one-yard loss on second down.
With the clock continuing to run, D.J Calhoun and Jaxon Hood stopped Allen two yards in the backfield to thwart the Trojan drive.
USC called timeout with 27 seconds left. The fat lady was warming up, but not yet singing.
Facing a fourth and 12 from the ASU 46-yard line, USC were set to punt, but not in the traditional manner.
For the fourth time in the game, USC turned their fortunes over to quarterback Cody Kessler's foot, rather than his arm.
"Our starting long snapper was out with a concussion," USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said after the game. "We didn't feel great about the operation of our normal punt team. We went with a spread punt with Cody, and we felt that gave us the best chance."
Instead, Kessler shanked a punt that not only went a paltry 18 yards, but it went out of bounds, draining just four seconds off the clock.
ASU took possession at their 28-yard line with 23 seconds left on the clock.
7) The Set Up
The last ditch drive got off to a shaky start, when Bercovici forced a throw into double coverage that was luckily not intercepted.
17 seconds left.
Out of a trips right formation, Gary Chambers ran over the middle and found a spot in the USC zone. Bercovici went through his reads, found Chambers open, and fired.
Chambers hauled in the pass for a 26-yard gain and fell to the ground with 10 seconds left. The offense sprinted to the line of scrimmage and managed to get off a quick spike of the ball.
There was now just seven seconds and 46 yards between the Sun Devils and a modern legend.
8) Sulka’s shutdown
"With seven seconds, you don't have a lot of time to think," said ASU head coach Todd Graham. "You're going off your script and sticking to the plan."
ASU dialed up their Hail Mary attempt, but there was one more thing that had to happen for the Sun Devils to have a chance.
"The most important part of that play was (right tackle) Tyler Sulka and him stopping the edge rusher," said Bercovici. "They know we're not running the ball, so they're coming nice and heavy, but he did such a great job to give me the extra second to slide right and let it rip."
With the Sulka giving him the time he needed, Bercovici unleashed the pass, and...well, you know.