ASU rides run game to bowl eligibility with 40-24 win over Oregon State

Posted: Updated:
ASU's Curtis Hodges makes a touchdown catch in the first quarter against Oregon State (AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez) ASU's Curtis Hodges makes a touchdown catch in the first quarter against Oregon State (AP Photo/Timothy J. Gonzalez)

At kickoff, it was cold. The sky was dark and grey, and a light fog hovered over the stadium.

It could best be described as “gloomy”.

It also seemed like an appropriate setting for the Sun Devils.

A week after losing a game they should have won against UCLA, Arizona State found themselves in a murky fog of their own. As they hit the road to face a beleaguered Oregon State team, questions remained on the direction of the program and of the job status of head coach Todd Graham.

By the end of the day, it was still cold, dark, and foggy, but some sunshine was shining on the Sun Devils.

ASU rode a dominant rushing attack to jump out to a big lead, and then held off a late Beaver rally to win 40-24. The Sun Devils improved to 6-5 on the year, and in doing so, became bowl eligible for the fifth time in Graham’s six seasons at the helm.

“That’s a big accomplishment for our program,” said Graham.

The Sun Devils racked up 286 yards rushing, with Demario Richard (119) and Kalen Ballage (103) each topping 100 yards. Richard added three touchdowns on the day as he continued his strong play in the second half of the season.

Yet it was through the air that ASU first struck. Quarterback Manny Wilkins found Kyle Williams for a 23-yard touchdown pass less than 90 seconds into the game, and he followed that up four minutes later with a scoring toss to true freshman Curtis Hodges.

“Our goal was to push the tempo,” said Wilkins, who complete 12 of his 19 throws for 167 yards. “They got a little tired. They had somebody that was 5-foot-9 guarding somebody that is 6-foot-7 (Hodges). It was executing our game plan.”

The Sun Devils also rushed for 147 yards in the quarter, and even when ASU had to punt, things broke in their direction.

A Wilkins pooch punt pinned Oregon State deep in their own end, and OSU quarterback Darrell Garretson was called for intentional grounding in the endzone to give ASU a safety and a 16-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

ASU kept up the pressure with their running game in the second quarter. Richard opened the quarter with a 17-yard touchdown run on the first play, and added a second scoring run two possessions later to stake the Sun Devils to a 30-0 lead.

“We knew our goal was to come out and play fast,” said Richard, who has rushed for 433 yards over his last three games. “We saw them on film. They have a hard time with tempo.”

“We’re going to take what the defense gives us,” said ASU offensive coordinator Billy Napier. “We felt like some of things they were doing, those sets, we could take advantage of.”

The Beavers were on the ropes but were not knocked out yet.

After some sarcastic cheers from the crowd after a, to that point, rare first down, Garretson guided OSU down the field on the next drive. Trevon Bradford’s 19-yard catch and 36-yard run got the Beavers deep inside ASU territory, and Ryan Nall capped the march with a 1-yard touchdown to close the halftime gap to 23 points.

Despite their 1-9 record and 0-7 mark in Pac-12 play, Oregon State had played teams tough in the weeks following the departure of head coach Gary Andersen. They would not go away quietly in the game, and ASU knew it.

“Every time they play at home, it’s a close game,” Richard said. “So we had to blow it open.”

ASU failed to do so in the third quarter despite continuing their success running the ball, and both teams were only able to add a field goal each in the quarter.

Richard’s third touchdown of the day, a 3-yard run, came early in the fourth quarter to extend ASU’s lead to 40-10.

However, OSU still had some fight in them.

Garretson and the Beavers responded to Richard’s score with a touchdown of their own, with Trevorris Johnson’s run capping off a 10-play, 77-yard drive.

Oregon State reached into their bag of tricks next, recovering the ensuing onside kick. Garretson would score on a 4-yard touchdown run six plays later, and suddenly, an insurmountable 30-point fourth quarter lead had become a two-score contest.

ASU quickly punted on their next drive, but seemed to seal the game away when Renell Wren intercepted a Garretson pass...but he then fumbled the ball on the return, and OSU remained alive.

For a little while.

They drove down the field and deep into ASU territory before Garretson fumbled and ASU’s JoJo Wicker recovered. ASU would be forced to punt with under two minutes left, but a roughing the kicker penalty was called on Oregon State.

First down. Ballgame. Bowl eligibility.

Survive and advance.

“At the end of the day, we came out with a W, and that’s all that matters,” Wilkins said.

“Our guys were very dialed in and focused,” Graham said. “We came in and dominated a team to get our sixth win and become bowl eligible.”

Returning to the postseason was a critical priority for ASU this season, and the only question left on that front is in which bowl game they will play.

“It’s very important for our program. It’s very important for recruiting,” said Graham of making a bowl game. “It’s not our ultimate goal, but it’s something that’s very important that you do every year, something that we had become accustomed to.”

Even as heavy favorites, many ASU fans entered Saturday’s game with a sense of unease. After all, the Sun Devils losing to teams they should beat had become something of a disturbing trend in recent years. But this time, they held on and secured an important win with the season’s most crucial game coming up.

“It was really important to get this win, solely for the seniors,” Wilkins said. “They come with a passion every single day. Personally, I wanted to make sure we got this one, and especially the next one, so we can get a good bowl.”

Next Saturday, ASU will host archrival Arizona in the annual battle for the Territorial Cup. With the sour taste of last year’s embarrassing loss to the Wildcats still in their mouths, the Sun Devils understand the heightened importance of this season’s match up.

“There’s not much that needs to be said about the importance of this game and what it means to our fanbase, what it means to our program, and what it means to our players,” Graham said.

“We know what time it is,” Richard said.

Arizona, and their Heisman Trophy contending quarterback Khalil Tate, will likely enter the game as a favorite to retain the coveted Territorial Cup. Arizona State will be looking to take back the trophy, ensure their first winning season, and secure a return for their head coach.

Oh, plus the winner gets a year's-worth of bragging rights over the entire state.

A lot is at stake. The storylines will be plentiful. But Wilkins knows that ASU's approach is simple.

“Go get a win.”

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved