EAST LANSING, MI (3TV, CBS 5) -- Sometimes, ugly is beautiful.
After two victories that brought out more concerns than confidence, Arizona State faced a daunting challenge in their first road game of the season as they traveled take on No. 18 Michigan State. The Sun Devil offensive line had been a mess, while the Spartans boasted one of the nation's top defenses.
It had the makings of an ugly game, and while it was ugly, the ending was pretty for Sun Devil supporters.
ASU's defense delivered a stellar bend-but-don't-break performance, and true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels led a clutch fourth quarter touchdown drive to deliver a 10-7 win.
“They never blinked," ASU head coach Herm Edwards said of his players. "They just didn’t.”
Michigan State appeared to kick a game-tying field goal with just six seconds left, but they were flagged for having 12 men on the field, a call that came after a lengthy official review. The second attempt, this time from five yards longer, was missed.
The Sun Devils improve to 3-0 on the season.
“The kid did good, boy.”
Herm Edwards on QB Jayden Daniels.
Given their offensive line struggles, and the prospect of facing an elite defense, ASU made some changes to their offensive line earlier in the week.
Cohl Cabral moved from left tackle back to his natural position of center. True freshman Dohnovan West slid from center to right guard, and another true freshman, LaDarius Henderson, started at left tackle. So much youth on the line was a risk, but it was one the ASU coaching staff felt they needed to take.
“That was our best option to solidify things," said Edwards. "That way, (Cabral) could help the guard situation. We felt like we had a young, talented left tackle.”
“When knew that it was going to be an extreme, extreme challenge," said offensive coordinator Rob Likens. "We did everything we could to slide, double, chip.”
It was evident from the start that ASU had no interest in being their usual run-heavy selves against the Spartans. They did not call a run play until the eight minute mark of the second quarter, opting instead for quick passes to the perimeter.
“What we wanted to do was get the ball out quick," Likens said. "Give Jayden some confidence. We knew that later on in the game, we were going to have to throw.”
Daniels completed four of his seven passes in the quarter, but for just 23 yards. For the first half, ASU only gained 104 yards, but they dug in.
“Our mindset was simple: Don’t let the emotion of the stadium get to us early," Edwards said. "If we could just withstand that first quarter barrage, if we could make it a methodical game, we’d have a chance.”
It was going to be a long day for the offensive side of the ball, but the Sun Devil defense made sure to give them all the time they needed.
“We never doubt our offense,” said sophomore linebacker Darien Butler. “We know they are going to pull through somehow or some way.”
ASU's defense rose up to the challenge and kept the Spartans at bay. They forced one fumble in the first quarter, and even when Michigan State was able to sustain drives, they came up empty. Two first-half field goal attempts by Matt Coghlin were missed.
“When they drive down the field and make big plays, we never quit," Butler said. "Just because they get down there, doesn’t mean they score.”
Daniels was able to get the Sun Devil offense going for one drive in the opening half. A pair of 15-yard completions for Brandon Aiyuk and Kyle Williams got ASU into Spartan territory. A personal foul derailed any touchdown hopes, but Cristian Zendejas was able to kick a 41-yard field goal to put the Sun Devils up 3-0 at the half.
The third quarter featured more of the same. ASU managed just 24 yards, but the Sun Devil defense held MSU in check, limiting them to 74 and stopping them on a key fourth-and-1 from the ASU 34.
But in the fourth quarter, the Spartans finally broke through.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke led his team on a 10-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a nine-yard scoring run from Elijah Collins. ASU responded by going three-and-out on the next possession, and the upset chances seemed dim.
The Sun Devil defense needed to rise up again. They did.
“Our guys played their tails off for the whole game," said defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales. “Our guys did a great job of making adjustments on the sideline.”
ASU forced MSU into their lone three-and-out of the day, and the Sun Devils took over at their 25-yard line with just 3:34 left. Their longest drive to that point had been 48 yards, and at that point, they needed 75.
"Defense got big stops, so we have to help the defense out," Daniels said. "They got the ball back, so we have to go down there and put up points.”
Before they took the field, Daniels had a message for his offensive line.
“I told Cohl and them, ‘Just give me some time, we’re going to go win this game,” Daniels said. "They trusted in me. I trusted in them. We just went out there and executed.”
A pair of five-yard completions got the drive going, and that's when ASU took their lone deep shot of the day.
“They did a good job of disguising coverages, but we knew our skill guys could go up there and get the ball," Daniels said. "They can play with the best."
On the next play, Daniels launched a deep ball down the left sideline and connected with Aiyuk for a 40-yard gain to the MSU 25.
“Reading the safety and looking at the best matchup, we knew that we had the deep ball on them," Daniels said. "(Aiyuk) did a good job running a great route. The ball was underthrown, but he made an unbelievable catch. It kick-started the drive.”
The drive appeared doomed when ASU faced a fourth-and-13, but Daniels was able to scramble for 15 yards to extend the game.
“Keep it live. Keep it as a scramble drill," said Daniels of the play. "If you can get yards, get yards.”
Another scramble set ASU up with a first and goal from the one. To that point, ASU's star running back Eno Benjamin had been held in check, but he had a message for his quarterback.
“He just, ‘Just give me the ball,'" Daniels said. "I’m going to go win this game.’"
Benjamin took the handoff and was hit short of the goal lie. However, he managed to stretch across the plane, and ASU took a 10-7 lead with 50 seconds left.
It was then that ASU made a defensive error. Gonzales opted to play softer coverage.
“I apologize for the last 50 seconds," Gonzales said. "That’s on me.When you play prevent, it prevents you from winning, and it almost did.”
Aiding by a third down pass interference call, MSU got in position for the game-tying field goal from 42 yards. Coghlin connected, and Spartan Stadium erupted. However, a flag was thrown, and the referee went to review the call. He determined Michigan State had 12 men on the field.
The penalty was tacked on, and the field goal re-tried. This time, the now-47-yard kick flew wide left.
The Critical Moment
With the game in the balance, ASU faced a fourth-and-8 from the MSU 23.
Then they got flagged for a false start. Yikes.
After two timeouts by the Spartans, and with deafening crowd noise from the Michigan State fans in his ears, Daniels took the do-or-die snap. He surveyed the field, felt pressure, stepped up, and took off.
Jayden gets it pic.twitter.com/FVkAknb6Ro— Brad Denny (@BDenny29) September 14, 2019
He needed 13 yards. He got 15.
“He’s just a special player," said Likens.
Four plays later, Benjamin scored the game-winning touchdown.
Some defenses throw exotic looks at an offense. Michigan State is not one of them.
“It was an offensive coordinator’s dream game to call a game knowing where everybody’s at," Likens lamented, "but they’re so good
Knowing that they wouldn't be able to sustain a rushing attack against the formidable Spartan front, Likens and ASU adapted behind their new-look offensive line.
“We knew they were a stout defense up front,” Cabral said. “We knew that we were going to have to throw the ball. By throwing the ball, we knew that we were going to lighten up the front and start pulling guys out of the box. When that happened, we ran the ball a bit more.”
ASU managed just 216 yards on the day, 75 of which came on the game-winning drive. While their primary playmakers were largely held in check, they made the plays when it mattered most. Aiyuk was held to just 64 yards, but 40 of those set up the touchdown. Benjamin rushed for just 38, but the last one made all the difference.
With two true freshmen on the line and a true freshman at quarterback, this offense will continue to be a work in progress. But to see them grind out an ugly win against a good team on the road is a very large, and very important, step in the right direction.
A few years ago, ASU's defense was a punchline. Now, it's capable of delivering knockout blows.
After allowing just 14 total points in wins against lower-caliber teams like Kent State and Sacramento State, some were skeptical that ASU could limit a Michigan State squad that scored 51 last week.
Like the others, they managed just seven points against ASU.
“We’ve given up 21 points," Edwards joked after the game. "I’ve been around a lot of football. I don’t know, I think that’s good.”
Even if it is below Gonzales' admittedly lofty standards.
“I was disappointed we gave up seven points today," he said. "I think we should have shut this team out.”
The Sun Devil defense continues to be a relentless swarm of a unit. Tillman safety Evan Fields had a breakout game, posting a game-high 13 tackles.
“Super proud of him," said Gonzales of Fields. "Talk about a young man taking advantage of his opportunity. He played really well. He had the hot hand. He tackled really well today.”
Sophomore linebackers Darien Butler and Merlin Robertson each had eight tackles, while defensive end Jermayne Lole had a strong game with eight of his own, including the only sack on the day.
Although ASU allowed 404 yards and managed just four tackles for loss and a single sack, they stood firm in the critical moments.
“We made enough plays to keep them out of the endzone," Gonzales said.
The unit did suffer when safety Aashari Crosswell and linebacker Khaylan Kearse-Thomas left due to injury, and that's when MSU managed their touchdown. Thankfully for ASU's sake, each player later returned (Crosswell even making the leap into the stands after the final whistle).
From the line to the secondary, ASU's defense continues to make major strides each week.
“We’re building something here that has a chance to be really special," Gonzales said.
When Daniels was announced as the starting quarterback in August, Likens said that he was years more mature mentally than other players his age. That was on full display during his first collegiate road start.
His numbers weren't great. He completed 15 of 26 for 140 yards with no touchdowns and 37 yards rushing. But he didn't have a turnover, and he was able to shake off any early nerves and the threat of an elite defense with a signature drive.
Throughout the game, with ASU's offense neutralized, Edwards checked in with his quarterback. He got the same answer every time.
“He looked at me and said, ‘I got it,'" said Edwards. "I said OK.”
In the end, he had it.
ASU's defense had a strong day, but their struggles on third down nearly were their undoing.
Michigan State converted nine of 17 third down attempts, many of which were in long-yardage situations.
ASU survived those lapses today, but Gonzales knows it's an area that will come back to haunt them at some point.
The Big Picture
Edwards knew what kind of game it was.
“It’s not pretty. It’s nothing you’d want to pay to watch," he said.
He also knows the style may not just be a one-game or even early season thing. Given the changes on the offensive line and the natural growing pains of a freshman quarterback, this likely is the template going forward.
"We’re going to play the way we have to play right now because that’s appropriate for us," Edwards said. “Each week, we have to come up with a plan for how to win a football game.”
That plan is going to be centered around their aggressive defense keeping things close, all while trying to establishing the run with Benjamin, and call plays that keep Daniels comfortable enough to get the ball to playmakers on the outside.
It's going to have its peaks and valleys, but through three games, the potential has been flashed. Should both units begin to click, ASU could very well make a run at the Pac-12 South crown.
The Next Step
With their non-conference schedule complete at a perfect 3-0, ASU now turns their attention to Pac-12 play. The Sun Devils will open up their conference slate on Saturday when they host South division rival Colorado.
The Buffaloes got off to a 2-0 start, highlighted by a Week 2 win over then-No. 25 Nebraska, but they lost to Air Force in overtime on Saturday. ASU will also be looking for revenge after Colorado beat the Sun Devils in Boulder last season 28-21.
The Extra Point
- ASU's late score extended their streak of games scoring seven or more points to 137, the best mark in the nation.
- ASU's 216 yards were their fewest since 2016 against Colorado (199). It's their fewest in a WIN since UCLA in 2008 (122)