ASU restores confidence in 37-35 win over No. 24 Oregon

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ASU's Demario Richard scores a touchdown against Oregon (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) ASU's Demario Richard scores a touchdown against Oregon (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

They had just fallen behind for the first time all night. On the heels of two consecutive losses, the pressure was already high and the patience was low in Tempe. With a season teetering on the brink, that score was potentially a knockout blow to the Sun Devils.

Arizona State found themselves trailing Oregon 35-34 with just over six minutes left in the game and the ball at their own 20-yard line. What to do? Go back to your roots.

They began with three straight tough runs by Demario Richard. Jalen Harvey moved the chains with clutch catches. The Sun Devils marched methodically—and confidently—down the field. On the 11th play, true freshman kicker Brandon Ruiz kicked a 41-yard field goal that would prove to be the difference.

ASU’s 37-35 victory over No. 24 Oregon evened the Sun Devils’ record at 2-2 overall and gave them a 1-0 start in conference play. It also snapped ASU’s 10-game losing streak to the Ducks that dated back to 2004.

More importantly, it showed that ASU has the ability to compete in a wide open Pac-12.

“We stuck together and believed in each other, no matter what,” said ASU head coach Todd Graham. “They never, ever doubted themselves, and to come out here 1-0 feels great.”

On a night in which several offensive players had impressive showings, it was the play of the ASU defense that stood out most.

Oregon entered Saturday’s game leading the nation in scoring, but the Sun Devils were able to keep the Ducks in check, largely by showing a vast improvement on third downs. ASU began the night with the nation’s worst third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert on nearly 55 percent of their chances. Saturday, Oregon was just one for 11. As a result, ASU held a 92 to 65 edge in total plays.

“This whole week we emphasized getting off the field,” said senior defensive lineman Alani Latu. “We have struggled with that the first few games on getting off the field on third downs”

The origin of this win for ASU can be traced back one week to Lubbock, Texas. The Sun Devils fell behind Texas Tech by 18 points on three separate times, but rallied to pull even late in the game before ultimately falling just short. Although the win eluded them, ASU showed an intensity in their play during their rally that had been noticeably missing since early last season.

It was front and center on Saturday against the Ducks.

ASU opened the game with a dominant first quarter. Quarterback Manny Wilkins continued his strong start to the year, guiding ASU to a 17-7 lead with a touchdown run and pass to N’Keal Harry in the quarter.

“Our mindset is every time we’re on the field our goal is to score seven points,” Wilkins said. “I think we did a really good job of executing our game plan.”

The offense then stalled in the second quarter, punting on their first four possessions, but in turn, the ASU defense stepped up. Despite missing arguably their best player in linebacker Koron Crump, ASU forced five consecutive Oregon punts, and the Sun Devils appeared to be heading to halftime with a 17-7 lead.

However, Ryan Newsome muffed that fifth punt deep in ASU territory. Oregon quickly converted that into a 12-yard Royce Freeman touchdown run, and suddenly, it was 17-14 at the break.

It could have been the turning of the tide, the spark that woke up a Top 25 team.

ASU made sure it wasn’t.

Keyed by a 63-yard reception by Harvey, Wilkins capped off a four-play, 75-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run on the opening possession of the second half. After an Oregon three-and-out on the next possession, ASU struck again.

Wilkins and Harry connected on a 47-yard reception in which Harry bounced off a pair of Duck defenders as he ran inside the Oregon 10-yard line. On the next play, Richard pounded the ball into the endzone to extend the lead to 31-14.

“It’s good to have him back,” Wilkins said of Richard, who led the team with 64 yards rushing. “He brings another element.”

Things were looking good...until they weren’t.

Oregon’s offense found its groove in the third quarter. Quarterback Justin Herbert threw a pair of touchdowns in the quarter, pulling the Ducks to within three points.

After Richard was stopped short on a fourth down, Oregon had excellent field position and a chance to take their first lead. But JoJo Wicker forced a fumble from Kani Benoit just two plays later to end that threat.

ASU appeared to squander the opportunity after a pair of sacks and a penalty put the offense into a third-and-27. That’s when Wilkins turned to Harry and his 6-foot-4 frame. He fired a pass deep down the right sidelines, and despite pass interference from Oregon’s Thomas Graham, Harry hauled it in for a 52-yard gain.

"That all comes back to the work we put in after practice,” Harry said. “For him to have the trust in me to throw me that ball on third down and however long, it's my job to go get it. I just wanted to make sure I came down with it."

It was part of Harry’s 170 yards on the night, marking the second consecutive week that he set a new career-high in yards.

"If you try to man coverage me, with no safety help over the top, that's disrespectful,” Harry said.

“He’s a big receiver and he uses his body well,” said Oregon head coach Willie Taggart. “Our guys were in good coverage, he just made some good catches.”

That drive ended with a 24-yard field goal from Brandon Ruiz, which extended ASU’s lead to 34-28.

The Ducks would answer later in the quarter. Two possessions later, tight end Jacob Breeland broke a Das Tautalatasi tackle on the way to a 51-yard gain, and a Herbert rushing touchdown soon followed. Oregon now led 35-34 with 6:32 left.

Four minutes later, they trailed 37-35.

“They threw some stuff at us that was really good, but at the end of the day we just executed a little bit better,” Wilkins said. “Guys make big time plays in big time situations.”

Oregon had two late chances to retake the lead, but each time, the Sun Devil defense forced a turnover on downs.

“We always talked about just finishing, and today we just had that edge, that little chip on our shoulder,” Latu said. “We just built off each other’s energy, off the offense’s energy, and just getting it done. I’m just happy we got it done.”

So are Sun Devil fans, whose loyalty was beginning to show some strain after ASU had lost eight of their last nine dating back to last season.

“Any win feels great,” said Wilkins, who threw for 347 yards and set a new school record by not throwing an interception in his last 188 passes and counting. “This one really felt good just because you go after two losses and your mindset is a little like, ‘We just need to get one, get this rolling.’”

The win breathes new life into a program looking to establish their identity and their place in the Pac-12 race. Saturday’s victory is an important step in that direction.

“I just see a team that’s hungry,” Wilkins said. “When I look in Chase Lucas’ eyes I see that dog in him right now. When I look in N’Keal’s eyes I see, ‘Throw me the ball.’ When I see Kalen (Ballage), it's ‘Let me run the ball up the middle.’ Demario as well. Our offensive line, they’re hungry. I just think this team plays really well together, and when we’re clicking it looks beautiful. It’s a thing of art.”

ASU will head to Palo Alto, Calif. next Saturday to face a tough Stanford Cardinal team that will be coming off a 58-34 win over UCLA, yet one that is also facing some difficult questions. With a bye week looming, keeping up this momentum will be crucial for the Sun Devils.

“It starts counting now,” Graham said. “We’re 1-0. We just knocked off one of the top-25 teams in the country. I couldn’t be more proud of our players. It’s a great night to be a Sun Devil.”

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