Arizona State digs deep, defies logic in knocking off No. 5 Washington

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ASU QB Manny Wilkins signals a first down (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) ASU QB Manny Wilkins signals a first down (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The field crew knew, and they were ready. As soon as the final second ticked away, they got to cranking.

In moments, the goal posts came down as Sun Devil fans—most clad in black—streamed onto the field. Music blared over the speakers at Sun Devil Stadium, but it was nearly drowned out by the screams and cheers. Players crowdsurfed. Cheerleaders were held over the fray, pink poms poms shaking. In the midst of the mayhem, N'Keal Harry took selfie after selfie with countless fans who approached him. All the while, a huge smile adorned his face.

Arizona State had just knocked off No. 5 Washington. It was ugly, it was weird, and it was the biggest win the stadium had seen in over 20 years.

"It was pretty special to have that moment," said ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins.

The Sun Devils entered Saturday night's game as 18.5-point underdogs. Of course they were. They were 2-3 on the year. They were hosting the fifth-ranked team in the country, a Husky squad that was 6-0 and coming off a College Football Playoff appearance a season ago. Since Washington's last visit to Tempe in 2015, the Huskies were 21-2.

But the Pac-12 has cornered the market on weird. Every weekend during the football season, the #Pac12AfterDark hashtag trends because the conference's teams routinely defy logic and the sport's sensibilities. Things get crazy, and nothing is certain. 

So it was on this Saturday night, even if the Sun Devils came into the game feeling confident.

“It wasn’t no fluke, either," said ASU head coach Todd Graham. "We whipped ‘em.”

The tone was set from the opening coin toss. ASU won, but instead of taking the ball, the Sun Devils opted to defer and begin on defense. It was a reversal of their recent habits, and as Graham pointed out, it harkened back to the 2013 and 2014 seasons in which the team's defense led the way. That, of course, stood in stark contrast to the last two-and-a-half seasons, in which ASU's defense was among the nation's worst.

Facing a dangerous Husky offense, sending the defense out first seemed risky. But it was a risk ASU felt they needed to take.

“I came out and told the players, I said ‘It’s time. It’s time,’" Graham said. "We’re in the Pac-12 and we’ve got the toughest team on our schedule, a top-five team in the nation. We’re going to defer. We’re going to kick off to them and play defense. If you’re going to win a championship, it’s got to start right there."

It paid off. ASU forced a quick Husky punt, and the Sun Devils went to work on offense. What followed was perhaps the most complete drive of the season.

The Sun Devils methodically marched down the field, combining tough runs and quick passes against one of the nation's elite defenses. They took advantage of match ups in their favor. They converted three third downs and a fourth down near the Washington goal line. On the 16th play, more than eight minutes after taking possession, Kalen Ballage ran the ball into the endzone from a yard out. 7-0 Sun Devils.

"We knew that they were subbing their twos in early in the game, which is almost a little disrespectful," Wilkins said, "but we just know that our offensive line did a really good job of staying firm on the run game."

That would prove to be the only time the Sun Devils would find the endzone all night long. Against the No. 5 team in the nation, that would normally be a quick ticket to the wrong side of a blowout. But not tonight, thanks to an incredible performance by the Sun Devil defense.

"That's probably as good a defense we've played against since I've been here," Graham said.

ASU forced punts on all five Husky possessions in the first half, allowing UW to run just 20 plays for a paltry 42 yards. 

"Give them some credit," said Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith. "I thought those guys were playing physical and hard. Early on we weren’t matching them physicality. That first half we struggled to get some rhythm."

Playing without top defender Koron Crump, ASU opted to use a heavier defensive front than they had shown this season. The Sun Devils used Renell Wren and George Lea along the defensive line and shifted defensive tackle A.J. Latu to their Devilbacker position. Those moves allowed the Sun Devils to get creative with their schemes, and it paid huge dividends.

“We showed blitz, and then we would rush three, and then we sometimes would rush a different three," Graham said. "It was masterful. (Defensive coordinator) Coach (Phil) Bennett and the staff did a great job and made great adjustments."

On the night, ASU tallied five sacks and nine tackles-for-loss. Seven different players registered at least one-half sack. A Washington offense that was averaging 432 yards per game was held to just 230.

With the Huskies in check, ASU managed a pair of Brandon Ruiz field goals to take a 13-0 lead into halftime.

As the second half opened, the Husky defense showed why they are among the nation's best. They held the Sun Devils to just 33 yards in the quarter, keeping their team in the game.

Enter #Pac12AfterDark.

Two times in the quarter, Washington managed to drive deep into ASU territory. Twice, Van Soderberg missed short field goals, one from 21 yards and one from 27.

“That’s hard because they can make those in their sleep," said Washington head coach Chris Petersen. "They can make those field goals, that’s what is discouraging about it.”

ASU squandered a chance to add to their lead in the fourth quarter when Ruiz misfired on a 47-yard attempt. Washington responded by driving 71 yards in 14 plays, the last of which was a Jake Browning quarterback sneak for a touchdown. ASU's lead was cut to 13-7.

There was 5:32 left on the clock. Was this the start of a Husky comeback, or could the Sun Devils put together a drive to close out the win?

ASU managed to move the ball. A 20-yard pass to Harry. A Demario Richard run for eight yards. Tick tock. Tick tock.

There was 2:08 left on the clock as ASU faced a third-and-three from the Washington 37. The Huskies were out of time outs. Wilkins' pass to Harry fell incomplete. Decision time.

Conventional thinking says punt it away, pin the Huskies deep, and make them drive down the field with no time outs. Or...go for it, and if you pick it up, seal the victory.

Graham had "a gut feeling." They went for it, because, as he said, "you play to win the game."

Wilkins dropped back and threw to his right. It was not his best pass, but tight end Ceejhay French-Love made the catch and turned upfield for a 30-yard gain.

Ball game.

“You know we just executed," said Wilkins. "[French-Love] made a hell of a play. It was a low ball and for a tight end that guy has really good ball skills and he just trusted his training and we executed there at the end to seal the game.”

After the game, Graham said he heard someone on his headset tell him to punt on that decisive fourth down. When asked who it was, he smiled coyly and replied, “I don’t know, an evil spirit."

On this night, the Sun Devils had a guardian angel who helped pull off an important victory.

"Those guys are like 21-2 in the last few games," said Graham of Washington. "But you know what? They ain't coming here and winning.”

Prior to kickoff, Graham saw ASU president Michael Crow on the field. Graham was a little surprised, as Crow typically does not venture down on the field before the game. They started talking, and Graham promised to give Crow the game ball after a victory. Crow could be forgiven for being a little skepitcal, as Graham is known for his hyperbole.

But a few hours later, Graham was able to make good, and did so on his own terms.

"He and I talked about that when he hired me six years ago," Graham said. "Not just winning, but winning and doing it the right way."

After Saturday's victory, the ASU football program is also heading in the right way. For how long? We'll see. For now, they are firmly in the mix of a divisional race in which nearly every team has a viable chance.

“It’s in our hands," Wilkins said of the team's fate. "The Pac-12 is such a tough conference to play in because on any given Saturday there’s not one team that just dominates. Everybody is so level, everybody has the same amount of players, everybody has the same amount of playmakers, so it’s just about who wants to go out there and who’s more hungry. And I think tonight we were hungrier.”

ASU will need to maintain that hunger as they hit the homestretch of their schedule. They travel to Salt Lake City next week to face Utah before returning home for a showdown with USC. At 2-1 in Pac-12 play, the Sun Devils remain in contention for the Pac-12 South division title. 

After all, in the Pac-12, anything is possible.

"We just beat the No. 5 team in the country," said Ballage. "We know we can play with anybody."

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