Sun Devils save season with 38-23 win over No. 7 UCLAPosted: Updated:
PASADENA, CA (KTVK/KPHO) -- It was only the first weekend of October, but already the Sun Devils had their backs against the wall.
Following an embarrassing 42-14 defeat at home to USC, Arizona State was 2-2 on the year and 0-1 in Pac-12 play. Their prospects of a turnaround seemed grim, with their next task a trip to Pasadena to battle No. 7 UCLA. Another loss could very well put ASU out of the Pac-12 South race before it even begun.
Those doubts can be cast aside for now. The Sun Devils are back in the hunt.
Led by a swarming defense and capped by one of the most incredible touchdown runs in recent history, ASU came into the Rose Bowl and left 38-23 victors.
"When we face great adversity, our character is shown," said ASU head coach Todd Graham.
Saturday's win seemed to follow a familiar script for Graham's Sun Devils, who have responded to early season conference losses with signature victories in each of the last two seasons.
"What we do is rebound, and that's a credit to Coach Graham," said ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici. "You can't say enough about him as a leader and as the face of the program."
The Sun Devils were led by a defensive effort that limited UCLA to a season-low 362 yards of offense, with just 63 coming from star running back Paul Perkins. Most critically, ASU allowed UCLA to convert just three of their 14 third down chances, a week after giving up 10 of 16 to USC.
"This is what we expect from our defense," ASU safety Jordan Simone said. "Our defense is going to come after you, whether you are a freshman quarterback or a fifth-year senior. If you put the ball in jeopardy, we are going to capitalize on it. Our defense really went to work."
They also opened the scoring with a first quarter safety when ASU defensive tackle Ami Latu's pressure forced UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen into an intentional grounding penalty in his own endzone. On the ensuing free kick, Tim White returned the ball 63 yards into Bruin territory, and three plays later, he capped the drive with a 13-yard touchdown catch for the 9-0 lead.
UCLA's offense finally got something going in the middle of the second quarter, thanks to a 50-yard completion from Rosen to Stephen Johnson. On the next play, Rosen hit Thomas Duarte for a 13-yard score. Both throws beat Simone on the coverage.
ASU responded with a pair of short Zane Gonzalez field goals, who shook off an earlier miss, to increase their lead to 15-7, the last of which came with just 21 seconds left in the first half. However, the Bruins made a few quick plays that allowed Ka'imi Fairbairn to connect on a 52-yard field goal just before halftime.
The Sun Devils forced a UCLA punt to open the second half, and on the ensuing drive, Bercovici was able to make the Bruins pay. After receiving criticism earlier in the season for not running the ball on read-option plays, Bercovici make a great read that found the Bruin defense off balance, and he took off for a 34-yard touchdown.
"If they are giving it, we take it," Bercovici said of the quarterback keepers. "Using your legs as a quarterback, the defense has to account for another guy in the box."
Bercovici, who completed 27 of his 44 throws on the night for 273 yards, extended the lead to 29-10 on ASU's next drive with an 11-yard strike to D.J. Foster.
With a 19-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, things were looking good for the Sun Devils. Then again, this is the Pac-12, where logic often goes by the wayside and no lead is ever safe.
A back of Perkins's quality can only be held in check for so long, and he opened the fourth quarter with a 29-yard rush that soon set up his 1-yard touchdown run. The momentum continued to go UCLA's way, as a Bercovici pass on the ensuing possession was tipped at the line and then intercepted. Four plays later, Rosen then found Duarte for a touchdown, and suddenly UCLA was only trailing by six with 9:19 left in the game.
"I thought he did a good job of showing development throughout the game," said UCLA head coach Jim Mora of Rosen, who finished 22 of 40 for 280 yards. "As the game got going, he found a rhythm and settled down and did some good things."
It was gut check time for the Sun Devils. They would soon answer the call.
"They put up a valiant effort and fight, but our guys would not be denied," said Graham.
The Sun Devils next drive picked up a pair of critical first downs, bleeding the clock further. Included in the drive was a fourth and inches call from the ASU 45-yard line. In most situations, a team would punt the ball, but the Sun Devils were going all in, and besides, it's not like their head coach was going to get in the way.
"I sat there on the fourth down play, and I didn't even have an opportunity to make the call," Graham said. "Our guys said 'We're going!'"
Bercovici connected with Demario Richard with a quick pass for the conversion, one of Richard's team-high eight catches for 55 yards, to go along with 79 yards rushing. However, the drive would soon stall, but a magnificent Matt Haack punt pinned UCLA at their 1-yard line with 5:06 left in the game.
Once more, the Sun Devil defense rose to the occasion, giving up just four yards and forcing a Bruin punt.
"That is a testament to our D-line and our linebackers," said Simone. "Salamo Fiso, Demetrius Cherry, (Tashon) Smallwood, all of those guys are putting their head down and going to work."
It was then that Mora opted for some unconventional strategy. He had his team take a safety, increasing the ASU lead to eight—still a one-score game—but hoping to flip field position for a last-ditch effort.
"You have to try to keep it a one-possession game," Mora said. "You'd like to do that when you are down by five, rather than six. If you punt from the five and give them good field position and they kick a field goal, you're down night. You want to keep to keep it a one-possession game and give your team good field position."
ASU had the ball and their foot on their rival's throats. Could they finish the job?
"We've been in this situation before," said Bercovici. "We have practiced this situation in fall camp. It was time to fricking go, man!"
Go they did, moving 47 yards in eight plays to exhaust UCLA's timeouts and hope of victory. All that was left was an exclamation mark to the win. That would come courtesy of sophomore running back Kalen Ballage, making just his second appearance of the year after missing the first three games dues to illness.
Ballage took a handoff, was wrapped up by tacklers at the UCLA 20-yard line and got spun around 180 degrees at the 17-yard line. Yet the 225-pounder kept his feet churning. While remaining on his feet, tight end Kody Kohl began pulling him towards the goal line. Soon, three offensive linemen joined the push. Then, Bercovici joined the effort. Soon, Ballage was in the endzone for the improbable game-clinching score.
"I was really motivated to get into the endzone. I wanted to put it away," Ballage said. "It was a good run."
"To a lot of people, that may be surprising, but to anyone on our team, it wasn't," Bercovici said. "That's what Kalen Ballage does, he's a man-child. He could play guard if we needed him to. He brings that physicality to running the football."
The win saves ASU's season, and puts them very much back in the race for the Pac-12 South title.
"People saw a little bit about what we are all about," said Simone.
"You can call it a turning point," Bercovici said. "We'll just call it another game."
The Sun Devils return home next Saturday to take on Colorado in a game that suddenly takes on increased importance for a newly revitalized Arizona State team.
"We want to win championships, and guess what?" Graham said, "We are still playing for them."
Copyright 2015 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.