No. 13 ASU uses second half surge to top WSU 52-31

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Perhaps the Sun Devils are just not morning people.

Shaking off a sluggish start after a rare 11 a.m. kickoff, No. 13 Arizona State used a strong second half to defeat Washington State 52-31. In his final game at Sun Devil Stadium, ASU senior quarterback Taylor Kelly threw for 232 yards and four touchdowns.

"That's something I'll always remember for the rest of my life," said Kelly. "When the clock hit zero, I was looking at the fans, my coaches, my teammates. To see their faces, that was a moment I'll remember for the rest of my life."

ASU's defense forced five Washington State turnovers on the day, helping to offset the 601 passing yards surrendered to WSU redshirt freshman quarterback Luke Falk.

The victory improves ASU's record to 9-2 on the year—6-2 in conference play—and keeps the Sun Devils alive in their quest to repeat as Pac-12 South division champions. 

Coming off a disappointing road loss to Oregon State that all but derailed ASU's hopes of a playoff berth, it appeared that the hangover effect was real.

Playing without star receiver Jaelen Strong, ASU's offense struggled in the first quarter, managing just 22 yards while Kelly was sacked four times. Meanwhile, Washington State was able to get on the board with a one-yard touchdown run by Falk that capped a 10-play scoring drive.

"It was just the focus. We didn't execute," said Kelly of the early failures. "Whether it was bad placement on a ball, a drop or timing on certain things, we just weren't clicking in the first quarter."

ASU safety Damarious Randall salvaged something of the quarter, when he intercepted Falk late in the first. D.J. Foster then took a screen 42 yards, and on the first play of the second quarter, he finished the job with a 17-yard scoring run to tie the game.

That momentum was shortlived, however.

Washington State drove 75 yards in 11 plays on the next drive, with Falk hitting Rickey Galvin for a one-yard touchdown. After consecutive three-and-outs by ASU, WSU again reached paydirt, thanks in no small part to four offsides penalties. Falk connected with Isiah Myers for a 20-yard touchdown to give the Cougars a 21-7 lead before a stunned and silent Sun Devil Stadium crowd.

Now seeing their season at a crossroad, ASU chose the right path.

"Adversity hit early on, and our team responded really well," said Kelly. "In the second quarter, we came together as a unit offensively and defensively, and we just put on a great show tonight."

With Strong out of the lineup, ASU's offense needed a threat downfield. Cam Smith answered the call.

The speedy sophomore beat WSU's secondary deep for a 42-yard touchdown reception that gave ASU a pulse.

“Cam is a tremendous athlete," said Kelly. "He has been waiting for his time and he got that opportunity and took advantage of it.”

Another player who has seized his opportnity in recent weeks followed up Smith's touchdown with another defining play. ASU defensive end Marcus Hardison made a tremendous interception on WSU's first play, returning it to the Cougar 13-yard line.

“We have an attacking style defense," said Randall. "With our great crowd that we have here and with just a lot of noise, the other team really can’t communicate a lot whenever we’re doing a lot of skimming and scheming. That's hard for the offense."

Two plays later, Kelly found Frederick Gammage for a 10-yard touchdown and the game was tied.

Unfortunately, the Sun Devils had yet to get all of their errors out of their system. With just 20 seconds left in the half, Myers beat cornerback Kweishi Brown and ran through his tackle for a 50-yard reception that set up a 27-yard Quentin Breshears field goal to send the teams into the locker room with WSU up 24-21.

Brown would atone for his error soon enough.

On their second drive of the third quarter, the Cougars faced a second and three at the ASU 40. Brown jumped in front of Falk's pass, and made an impressive juggling interception. 

Taking a shot, Kelly connected with Smith again for a 67-yard gain down to the WSU three-yard line. Three plays later, Foster ran it in for the score and ASU's first lead of the day.

"D.J. Foster came to play like he always does every single game," said ASU head coach Todd Graham.

ASU extended their lead to 31-24 early in the fourth quarter with a 47-yard Zane Gonzalez field goal. 

It was then that the flood gates opened.

With the Cougars driving inside the ASU 35, Hardison registered his second sack of the day. This one forced a fumble, which was returned by Ami Latu 51 yards to the WSU 18. 

"That guy is on beast mode," said Graham of Hardison, who now has 10 sacks on the year. "He is playing with unbelievable confidence. He is the real deal. What was missing was that fire in his eyes. I am very proud of him."

On the first play from scrimmage, Foster—who finished with 96 yards rushing and 155 yards from scrimmage—ran 18 yards for his third touchdown of the day.

Just two plays after the Foster touchdown, ASU linebacker Salamo Fiso picked off Falk for the fourth time in the game.

"We were just getting turnovers all over the place," said Graham. "Four interceptions and one fumble recovery. Five turnovers is pretty good. We did not score any points off defense but we sure did set up points for our offense."

The field position resulting from those turnovers was critical in the comeback.

"Field position was what this whole game was about," said Kelly. "I can always count on them to give us great field position, whether it’s a turnover, or turnover on downs. Our defense is an attacking defense and I love to see what they do."

Completing a perfect five-for-five on capitalizing on turnovers, Kelly found Smith for a touchdown seven plays later.

"I gave him a little fist bump and asked for a touchdown," said Graham of his pregrame talk with Smith. "He had two. He listens well."

Now with the game in hand, ASU's defense responded with a turnover on downs, that set up Kelly's fourth scoring pass of the game, this time a six-yard toss to Kody Kohl.

Washington State added a late touchdown against ASU's second-team defense, but it was far too little too late. Thanks to ASU's attacking defense, the win was secured.

“Our defensive line starting creating a lot of pressure and once we created a couple turnovers, their offense started slowing down a little bit," Randall said. "Their quarterback started second guessing himself and that’s when we started attacking more and more.” 

The 52-31 win was a fitting way to send off this group of Sun Devil seniors, but in the end, the day belonged to Kelly.

"I was so proud when we took the field and the student section chanted Taylor Kelly's name. That guy has meant so much to this program," said Graham. "Being a quarterback is pretty tough. Probably tougher than being a head coach. He is the one that has truly led this team. Without his leadership, we will not be where we are at today.

"In 27 years of coaching he is the most special person I have ever been around and I am proud that I had the chance to coach him. In my career there has only been one Taylor Kelly."

"All of the hard work and relationships that I've built with this team over the years and how close we've become as a family is one thing that I'll remember for the rest of my life," said Kelly.

ASU now prepares to finish out the regular season with the Territorial Cup battle with rival Arizona.

"We’re looking at it like it’s a Pac-12 Championship game," said Kelly. "It’s down in Tucson on a Friday afternoon, so we have to start preparing tonight and get to work.”