The top 5 defining plays of the Todd Graham era at ASU

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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

It's been quite a three-year run for Arizona State football.

In the wake of 2011's disastrous finish, the Sun Devils were in complete disarray. The team had fallen apart, the coaching search was the butt of national jokes, and fans were up in arms.

Fast forward to the summer of 2015.

As Todd Graham enters his fourth season as head coach, he can look back upon a resume that includes 28 wins, a Pac-12 South championship, two Territorial Cup wins, and a pair of bowl wins in three appearances. 

The improvement the program has seen has come faster than most anyone imagined, and the future is inarguably bright. While there have been countless memorable moments—both positive and negative—during this span, these five plays embody the progress and challenges that have shaped the Sun Devil program.

Robert Nelson's interception seals Cup win over Arizona (2012)

The most important, and heated, game of every season had a little extra sizzle with it in 2012, as the Duel in the Desert featured the rivalry debut of Graham and Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez.

After a promising 5-1 start to the Graham era, ASU had hit the skids, dropping four straight games before beating Washington State the week before. The Sun Devils were now facing their hated rivals, who were ranked No. 24 in the polls and had the home field advantage.

Trailing by 10 entering the fourth quarter, ASU had battled back to take a 34-27 lead with just over five minutes left. However, Matt Scott had marched his Wildcats on a drive looking to tie. The Sun Devil defense had stiffened, forcing a key fourth down at the ASU 44-yard line.

Scott dropped back and fired a pass, but it sailed a bit too high and off his receiver's fingers. ASU cornerback Robert Nelson plucked the ball out of mid-air, and raced his way 66 yards to the Arizona two-yard line.

Three plays later, Michael Eubank powered his way in for the touchdown, and ASU claimed the Territorial Cup.

Chris Young sacks Brett Hundley to clinch Pac-12 South (2013)

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and the Sun Devils were looking to force feed the Bruins seconds during their meeting on Nov. 23, 2013.

ASU came into the game 8-2 and ranked 17th, while UCLA had an identical record and the No. 14 spot in the polls. The Bruins' last-second win in 2012 had ended ASU's Pac-12 South title hopes, setting the stage for a battle with massive implications in 2013.

The Sun Devils came out firing, taking a 35-13 lead into the half. But UCLA showed why they were the defending champs, cutting the lead to 38-33 early in the fourth quarter.

UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley was looking for another comeback win, and had driven his Bruins to the ASU seven-yard line facing a third and six.

The Sun Devils, running their aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme, had been bringing pressure all night, but had failed to slow the Bruins in the second half. Despite the struggles, ASU wasn't about to change their tactics. As they have repeatedly shown over the last three years, they would live and die by the blitz.

That night, they lived.

On that critical play, linebacker Chris Young was able to get to Hundley, bringing him down for a 13-yard loss. That elongated the ensuing field goal try by Ka'imi Fairbarn, who missed the attempt.

With new life injected, ASU's defense held back the next and final UCLA drive, punctuated by a pair of sacks (including Young's third of the night) and secured ASU's first Pac-12 South division title.

The Jael Mary (2014)

Prior to Graham's arrival, many ASU teams suffered from a nasty habit. When things went bad, they soon got worse. A missed block, a blown coverage, or, most often, a bad penalty could send the team into a spiral that would quickly result in disaster.

For the most part, Graham's Sun Devils have been able to overcome those failings, showing a renewed resiliency. That quality has never been on display to a greater degree than when ASU traveled to play USC this past October.

With under four minutes left, ASU trailed the 16th ranked Trojans 27-18. Backup quarterback Mike Bercovici soon connected with D.J. Foster for a 21-yard touchdown to get ASU some hope.

That hope appeared dashed almost instantly, as USC's Buck Allen reeled off a 53-yard touchdown run two plays after a failed onside kick attempt.

Gut punch.

But this ASU team got up, dusted themselves off, and went to work.

On their first play on the next drive, Bercovici connected with Cam Smith for a 73-yard score. The Sun Devil defense then forced a three-and-out. After the USC punt, ASU had 72 yards to go and 28 in which to do it.

You know what happened next.

The stunning win was the first of five straight ASU wins, including four over ranked opponents.

Demario Richard resurrects the ASU offense against Notre Dame (2014)

It's a script that had become too familiar all season long. ASU would start off strong, building a big lead over an opponent, only to see their offense fizzle out and make things too close for comfort.

It was happening yet again on Nov. 8 of last year, and this time, it was in during ASU's highest profile game in years.

It was a battle of top 10 teams in Tempe. No. 9 ASU was looking to make a serious run at a playoff spot by topping No. 10 Notre Dame. Things couldn't have started off better, as the Sun Devils went into the half leading 34-10. The offense was moving well, amassing 253 yards in the half.

That success vanished in the second half.

Three third quarter ASU drives netted a total 32 yards. Their first in the fourth quarter made it all of 35 yards before Taylor Kelly threw an interception. ASU's next drive was a three-and-out.

As the Sun Devil offense crumbled, the Fighting Irish roared back, scoring 21 straight to make it a 34-31 game with just over six minutes left in regulation. Would this be the latest in a string of high-profile collapses for ASU?

True freshman running back Demario Richard answered with a resounding “no”.

After D.J. Foster gave ASU a spark with 14 and 15-yard runs, Richard hauled in a screen pass and rumbled 40 yards inside the Irish five. On the next play, he caught another pass for the touchdown to stop the Irish run.

With momentum finally back on their side, ASU closed out the game strong. Lloyd Carrington ended the next Notre Dame drive by returning an interception for a touchdown, and Kelly added a touchdown run to cap the Sun Devils' 55-31 win.

Taylor Kelly's pick 6 ends playoff hopes (2014)

The Sun Devil program has made tremendous strides towards becoming a contender under Todd Graham, but they've shown that they aren't there yet.

It's the natural evolution of a program on the rise. For every two or three steps forward, one is taken backwards. While these setbacks are expected, that doesn't mean they are any less painful.

A week after their win over Notre Dame, ASU was riding high. The Sun Devils found themselves ranked No. 6 in the playoff rankings, and controlled their destiny towards a playoff spot with three games remaining on their schedule in which they expected to be the favorites.

Up first, Oregon State, losers of four straight.

A sluggish start in bitter cold saw ASU fall behind 14-3, but they rallied to take a 24-14 halftime lead. It was then that the second-half offensive woes returned.

Their first four drives of the second half netted just 105 yards and one field goal, while the Beavers had managed to take a slim 28-27 lead. A clutch defensive stop by the ASU defense got the Sun Devil offense back on the field, starting at their own 15. Quarterback Taylor Kelly, who had come under heavy fire from fans for his lackluster play since his return from a foot injury, had a chance at redemption.

However, he threw a bad interception to linebacker Michael Doctor, who returned it for a touchdown to dash ASU's playoff dreams.