(3TV/CBS 5) -- When Herm Edwards was hired in 2017, the scoffs, snickers, and sneers were hard to ignore.
Three seasons later, so is Arizona State’s ascent to Pac-12 contender.
Since taking over for Todd Graham, Edwards and his staff have aimed to reshape the program off the field in order to produce better results on it. From player evaluation to recruiting, to development, to scheme, the efforts have made gradual gains.
As a result, ASU appears positioned to challenge for the conference title heading into Edwards' fourth season.
The progress—or in some cases, progress yet to be made—can be distilled down to a handful of individual plays. These are plays that not only changed games, but have told the story of Edwards' tenure to date.
N’Keal Harry’s Punt Return vs. USC: Oct. 27, 2018
Lesson: Trust your stars.
The first season of the Edwards era got off to an uneven start.
A pair of home wins, including a Week 2 victory over No. 15 Michigan State, got the Sun Devils into the Top 25. That stay was brief thanks to a disappointing loss to San Diego State and then a road loss to Washington. Eno Benjamin set the school rushing record in a win over Oregon State, but losses to Colorado and Stanford left ASU at 3-4 and gave the Edwards doubters plenty of Told Ya So ammo.
The team’s Oct. 27 road matchup against Pac-12 South rival USC had the feeling of a make-or-break situation, and perhaps not just for the season at hand.
Late in the third quarter, ASU trailed 28-24, but the defense had forced the Trojans to punt. Reid Budrovich sailed his punt inside the 10-yard line. Going in the face of conventional punt returner wisdom, ASU’s N’Keal Harry went to field the ball.
"Everybody was yelling, 'Don't catch it! Don't catch it!" said ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins.
Edwards has a reputation as a coach who places trust in his players, and Harry rewarded his coach's faith.
After catching the punt, Harry immediately reversed field, retreating as deep as his 3-yard line, as he tried to turn the corner.
"I was just trying to make something happen," Harry said. "I noticed there wasn't a lot of room in the middle of the field, so I just tried to get it outside."
He got around the corner near the opposite sideline, got some blocks, and had a clear path ahead. Well, almost clear.
"There was only one man to beat, and it was a lineman," Harry said. "So I felt like I had a pretty good chance of scoring."
The 92-yard touchdown gave ASU a lead they never gave up.
The win was the first of three straight for ASU over South division opponents, a streak that helped get the season back and track and generate positive momentum for the program to end the year.
In addition, a win in southern California was an important step in establishing ASU's recruiting efforts in the region, which paid major dividends in the class of 2019.
Aashari Crosswell’s INT vs. Arizona: Nov. 24, 2018
Lesson: The kids are alright.
The returning stars like N’Keal Harry and Eno Benjamin helped the Sun Devils bridge the coaching regimes. But a defining characteristic of the Edwards era has been a willingness to play freshmen in key spots.
Safety Aashari Crosswell was one of the highest-rated members of ASU’s 2018 recruiting class. Over the course of the season, he had worked his way into the starting lineup. As a true freshman, there were the expected ups and downs, but he improved steadily over the course of the season.
In the Territorial Cup showdown against Arizona, ASU entered the fourth quarter trailing by 19. They had fought back to close the gap to eight, but time was running out. With five minutes left, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate lofted a third down pass. Crosswell, who had dropped a few would-be interceptions earlier in the year, didn’t make that mistake this time.
“Big time players make big time plays in big time games," said then-defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales said.
The interception set up a critical field goal in ASU’s improbable comeback win, and it helped validate the staff’s willingness to stick with young players in key moments.
Jayden Daniels’ 4th Down Run vs. Michigan State: Sept. 14, 2019
Lesson: He’s as cold as ice.
Edwards’ first year ended with the same 7-6 record that Graham had posted in his final season, yet it had a different feel. With four wins in the final five regular season games, along with a returning core of young players, there was positive momentum heading into 2019.
The most intriguing new element was the addition of quarterback Jayden Daniels. One of the nation’s elite recruits, Daniels had earned the starting job in fall camp. Two solid, if unspectacular, wins against overmatched Kent State and Sacramento State squads still left some questions heading into a road trip against No. 18 Michigan State.
Playing behind a retooled offensive line trying to hold back a relentless Spartan defense, Daniels and the ASU offense struggled. Trailing 7-3 with just 3:34 left in the game, Daniels took the field needing to drive his team 75 yards to win. It was a tough spot for any quarterback, let alone a true freshman making his first road start.
A 40-yard pass to Brandon Aiyuk got the Sun Devils into MSU territory, but the drive soon stalled out. A fourth-and-8 became a fourth-and-15 after a false start. It was do-or-die time.
With the crowd noise at deafening levels, Daniels dropped back, surveyed the field, and took off running. He needed 12. He got 15.
Jayden gets it pic.twitter.com/FVkAknb6Ro— Brad Denny (@BDenny29) September 14, 2019
“Keep it live. Keep it as a scramble drill," said Daniels of the play. "If you can get yards, get yards.”
Four players later, Benjamin scored the game-winning touchdown. Edwards and ASU had found its quarterback.
“The kid did good, boy,” Edwards said.
Brandon Aiyuk Goes Deep vs. Oregon: Nov. 23, 2019
Lesson: They can play with anybody.
In the weeks after the win over Michigan State, ASU kept up the momentum. They would improve to 5-1, reach No. 17 in the polls, and be featured in an HBO special.
However, a crushing loss at Utah was the start of a four-game losing streak that dropped the team to .500 ahead of a home date against No. 6 Oregon.
“They didn’t handle their success very well when they were 5-1,” Edwards said. “That’s part of growing up.”
Despite being a significant underdog, ASU held a 24-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter. But the Ducks weren’t done. Two quick touchdown drives, each lasting less than a minute, swung momentum strongly in Oregon’s favor. ASU appeared to be on the brink of throwing away their chance at the upset win.
Before the ensuing drive, Edwards walked over to Daniels.
“Hey man, it’s real simple now. You make three first downs in this series of five minutes, the game’s over."
He also gave his young quarterback another option.
"But you can throw a touchdown too, if you want.”
Facing a third-and-18 deep from their own 19, Daniels took the latter option. He lofted a deep ball down the left sidelines and hit Aiyuk in stride for an 81-yard touchdown to seal the win.
"They were still giving me the ball and playing me man to man,” Aiyuk said. “Last year playing against Oregon, we know there was a lot of talkers, but didn’t say too much today."
In front of a national TV audience, Daniels had shown off his unflappable nature and led his team to a signature—and season-salvaging—win.
USC’s Tip Ball Drill: Nov. 7, 2020
Lesson: Great teams don’t let ‘em off the hook.
Coming off an 8-5 season, expectations were rising for Arizona State. Even with the season delayed and shortened due to the pandemic, the Sun Devils were looked at as a potential darkhorse Pac-12 contender, a status validated by their season-opening game against USC on national TV.
For much of the game, ASU looked the part. Their running backs made big plays, while the defense held the Trojans in check and produced timely turnovers.
But they began to wear down in the fourth quarter as USC began to move the ball.
On a fourth-and-13 with under three minutes left, USC quarterback Kedon Slovis fired a pass to the corner of the endzone. Receiver Joshua Jackson was covered by two ASU defenders, but he managed to tip the ball in the air enough to allow Bru McCoy to make the touchdown grab.
“You gotta make the plays," Edwards said. "It wasn’t like we weren’t in position to make the play, we just have to make them when they present themselves.”
USC then recovered an onside kick and scored what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown with 1:20 left.
Over the course of two seasons, Sun Devil football had made strides, on and off the field. But the heart-wrenching loss to a division rival proved there was still much work to be done.
Rachaad White Goes the Distance vs Arizona: Dec. 11, 2020
Lesson: ASU still owns the state.
No matter who the head coach is, beating Arizona is among the most important tasks for a Sun Devil season. For the ups and downs of his first two seasons, Herm Edwards had done well in that area.
In 2018, ASU survived a nail-biter. In Year 2, it was a pretty straightforward win. Even coming in as an 11-point favorite, no one expected how the 2020 Duel in the Desert would played out.
D.J. Taylor opened the game with a kick return touchdown. A quick Wildcat turnover set up another ASU score just seconds later. By the end of the first quarter, ASU was up 21-0.
Weird things have always happened in this rivalry. There’s been no shortage of memorable comebacks, and no lead can ever feel safe.
But this one was. Rachaad White made sure of that.
A junior college transfer, the ASU running back emerged as a big-play threat. His biggest splash of the year came early in the second quarter. Backed up at the ASU 7-yard line, White took a handoff, ran right, cut upfield, and raced 93 yards untouched for a touchdown.
"We just had a good gameplan," White said. "Our coach preaches to take what they give you because you never know. A 93-yarder, the chance comes, you gotta make the best out of it."
The play highlighted ASU’s dominant 70-7 win. White's emergence as a game-breaking talent in a loaded Sun Devil backfield is among many reasons the hype for ASU's 2021 season is already building.