Devils Prevail on Gonzalez Game-Winning FG

It was “Separation Saturday” in the Pac-12 South on Saturday and by the end of the night Arizona State was left standing alone atop the division thanks to a 36 yard game-winning field goal by Zane Gonzalez as the Sun Devils toppled Utah in overtime 19-16.

Throughout his three years in Tempe, Arizona State Head Coach Todd Graham has preached to his teams the importance of overcoming adversity. On Saturday night, the Sun Devils starred down adversity and refused to blink.

After jumping ahead to a 13-3 lead midway through the second quarter, Arizona State (7-1, 5-1) found itself trailing by three with 8:41 to play in the fourth with its offense sputtering, struggling to generate any sort of rhythm in the second half.

Starting at their own 26 yard line, the Sun Devils marched 61 yards on eight plays to even the score at 16 on a 30 yard field goal attempt by sophomore kicker Zane Gonzalez, a kick that would eventually push the game into overtime.

After winning the overtime coin toss, Arizona State elected to start out on defense, giving Utah and its rushing attack the first chance to set the tone for the extra period after getting gashed all night by the Utes and running back Devontae Booker, the Sun Devils held firm on three consecutive plays, forcing a Utah field goal.

Utes kicker Andy Phillips, who entered the game 14-16 on the year and a perfect 5-5 from less than 40 yards out, missed the 35 yard attempt, pushing the kick wide right. But as fans and the Sun Devils began to celebrate their good fortunes, it was ruled that Utah Head Coach Kyle Whittingham had called for timeout prior to the kick attempt.

However, the Phillips’ second attempt was no better, as the kick hooked to the left, leaving Utah scoreless and at the mercy of the Arizona State offense.

After three consecutive run plays by the Sun Devils, Gonzalez trotted out for a 36 yard attempt. With an icy cold demeanor, the sophomore sent ASU home with a victory, pushing the final kick through the uprights as the crowd of 53,754 at Sun Devil Stadium erupted in celebration.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” said Graham afterwards. “Love coaching these guys. Just the character of this team, the faith and belief they have and in what we’re doing. I’m just really proud of them and really proud of Zane. Zane’s big-time. He’s the best kicker I’ve ever coached. That was a big-time win there.

“I think it helps you tremendously down the line because when you go in and win an overtime game, it helps you win the next overtime game. There’s no substitute for experience and there’s no substitute for winning close football games. You can’t be a champion without them.”

Gonzalez, a Freshman All-American last year, entered the night 10-12 on the season. He connected on 3-4 kicks before the final attempt, missing only form 50 yards in the second quarter, and managed to deliver when it mattered the most for the Sun Devils.

“I just worry about the snap,” said Graham. “I don’t worry about (Zane). He has a personality that gives you a lot of confidence. He’s the best I’ve been around. If he lines up right, he’s going to make every field goal he tries. He’s really good.”

With the win, coupled with Arizona’s loss to UCLA in Pasadena, Arizona State sits alone atop the Pac-12 South standings, a scenario not many could have imagined just five weeks ago after the Sun Devils’ humiliating loss to the Bruins in Tempe.

However, just as it has for the past few weeks, ASU relied on its defense when the offense struggled against the Utes.

The Sun Devils limited Utah (6-2, 3-2) to just 241 total yards of offense and 13 first downs. Junior quarterback Travis Wilson completed just 12-22 passes for a paltry 57 yards, making Utah a one-dimensional foe for the Sun Devils, allowing its defense to key against stopping the run game.

While junior college transfer Devontae Booker rushed for 146 yards on Saturday, it took the junior 37 attempts and he was held without a touchdown, keeping the Utes in check.

“Most of it was our guys just whooping them up front,” said Graham. “We were controlling the line of scrimmage and they were tough. The running back was tough. They hit us on a couple and had a speed option. Our deal was we wanted to make the quarterback run the football and he did and hurt us a little bit, but we felt like we did what we had to do to win.”

Arizona State registered three sacks and eight tackles for a loss on Saturday while holding Utah to just 7-20 on third down attempts. The Sun Devils were led by safety Jordan Simone who tallied a team-high 13 tackles and linebacker Antonio Longino who added 11 tackles in the win.

“I love coaching these guys,” remarked Graham. “Coach Patterson and Coach Ball and Coach Randolph and Coach Shipp deserve a lot of credit. I get frustrated real easily and we have quite a bit of scheme that we do and a lot of what we do defensively is complex. I was really kind of frustrated and kind of started to shave it back but Coach Patterson said, ‘Look Coach, let’s stick with it. Let’s keep teaching.’ And we did.”

After a pair of Zane Gonzalez first quarter field goals, the Sun Devil struck for their only touchdown of the night when quarterback Taylor Kelly connected with Jaelen Strong for a six yard score to push the ASU lead to 10.

Kelly, playing in his second game since injuring his leg against Colorado, completed 18-32 passes for 205 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The quarterback rushed for 77 yards on 14 carries but was also sacked four times by the Utes, stalling a number of critical scoring opportunities.

“We took too many sacks,” commented Graham. “That was the whole thing. And a lot of the sacks, I was just standing there watching them, we just got beat on some of them. Some of them we were holding the ball for too long. We don’t want our quarterback moving out of the pocket and backwards and to the right, because nothing good is going to happen when that happens, in my opinion.”

Fortunately for ASU, while the passing game looked out of sorts for a second consecutive week with Kelly back at the helm, the Sun Devil rushing attack was clicking from start to finish. Freshman running back led the charge with a career-best 116 yards on 14 carries while junior D.J. Foster added 57 yards on 10 carries.

“Demario gives us a bruising power and I like the diversity that he gives us in the skill-set of our running backs,” said Graham. “He’s really, really going to be a fantastic back. Our running back core is special. Not just Demario, but Kalen Ballage and De’Chavon Hayes, who’s redshirting this year. He’s a phenomenal back. We’ve got a stable of guys.”

With the win, Graham and the Sun Devils have now won their last seven games in the month of November and improve to 20-5 in their last 25 games.

“All I know is you’ve got to go undefeated in November to play on December 5th and that’s what we want to do,” said the coach. “We want to be in San Francisco on December 5th, so the next thing we’ve got to do is get better this week, go compete and beat Notre Dame, and then we’ve got Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona to get to December 5th.

“It’s still a single elimination tournament. You’ve got to win every one of them and I’ve got a lot of confidence in our team.”

ASU returns to Sun Devil Stadium next week when it takes on Notre Dame in a non-conference showdown between two teams competing for a spot in the first-ever college football playoff. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:30 PM MT and the game will be televised nationally on ABC.

“These are the kind of games that coaches want to coach in and players want to play in and fans want to watch. Two top teams in the country going at it,” said Graham. “I have tremendous respect for Coach Kelly. I have a background of competing and going against him to know that he’s a very, very good football coach. We’re excited about the opportunity and where were at and it’s another week, another challenge in a very challenging schedule.”

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