PASADENA, Calif. — For the third season in a row, Arizona State found itself handcuffed early in Pac-12 play only to escape impending doom.
Saturday’s Houdini act may have been the best yet of the Todd Graham-era in Tempe.
The straightjacket that would have been an 0-2 start in conference play ended up on the turf of the Rose Bowl as Sun Devils stretched their hands skyward in victory following an improbable 38-23 win over UCLA.
Now, they’re 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12, building confidence heading into next Saturday’s game against Colorado at Sun Devil Stadium. UCLA fell to 4-1, 1-1 in the league after dropping its first game of the season in front of 80,113 fans, including thousands wearing ASU gold.
Their “ASU” chants echoes carries into the bowels of the Rose Bowl long after the final whistle, even as the Sun Devils themselves parroted their followers with a similar chant in an unseen locker room beneath them.
“I’m proud of what our team has been able to do,” Graham said. “Our backs have been against the wall and I’d really like to quit putting our backs up against the wall but we respond pretty good.”
The Sun Devils have experience getting out of similar early-season jams. In 2013 they were dismantled by Stanford in their first Pac-12 game of the year only to win eight straight league games and the Pac-12 South in outright fashion.
Last season, ASU was humiliated at home by UCLA 62-27 in quarterback Mike Bercovici’s first career start only to win their next five games en route to a second straight 10-win season.
All told, the Sun Devils are 7-1 following a loss since the start of the 2013 season.
This time around, with the team Graham has said repeatedly is his best in four years in Tempe but has looked anything but, a building fury was unleashed.
The Sun Devils forced UCLA into three-and-outs on its first three possessions and five overall in the first half.
“I don’t blame our fans for being upset, they should be,” Graham said. “We haven’t played very good and I was pissed about it. We were pissed. We came out tonight and played pissed. Maybe we need to play pissed more often.”
ASU imposed its will on the Bruins through three quarters and held a 29-10 lead before consecutive touchdowns early in the fourth quarter gave the home team all the momentum and made it a one-touchdown game, at 29-23 with 9:19 remaining.
Fittingly though, it was a great individual special teams play in a game that more broadly was ASU’s best in the phase its been significantly challenged by in recent years that helped it emerge victorious.
In a game that featured an underlying field possession battle subtext throughout, junior punter Matt Haack — who had five punts inside the UCLA 20-yard line — sent a ball off his foot 63 yards and out of bounds inside the UCLA 1 yard line. The Bruins couldn’t move it from there and ended up taking an intentional safety by snapping it over the punter’s head in order to try to keep it a one-score game, at 31-23 with 4:16 remaining.
UCLA wouldn’t get the ball back though until the game was out of reach. After the Bruins kicked it off, ASU ran a 12 play drive that included two third-down conversions and ended with sophomore running back Kalen Ballage being pushed 19 yards after contact in a massive scrum until he was resting comfortably on his back in the end zone.
“People outside of this football team are probably surprised,” Ballage said. ‘Oh, Arizona State knocked off UCLA, and are jumping all over the place.’ We’re jumping all over the place too. We’re happy. But at the same time we’re not surprised. We’re not surprised because we know what this team is capable of.”
UCLA running back Paul Perkins entered Saturday averaging 128 yards rushing per game but had just 23 yards on 12 carries at halftime and the Bruins as a team had seven yards rushing at intermission.
“I thought (defensive coordinator) coach (Keith) Patterson was going to punch me in the face at halftime,” Graham said, “because I was talking about everything we were doing wrong and he said, ‘Hey, they have seven yards rushing and we have five three-and-outs.’ We got a little heated at halftime. He punched the dry eraser board and was pretty animated, so I shut up.”
“[ASU’s performance against the run] was impressive but I knew. I’m telling you a lot of it had to do with the opponents we were playing, but I knew what kind of rush defense we had….They could not run the ball tonight.”
Against USC a week ago, the Sun Devils couldn’t get off the field on third down, giving up big plays time and again in the first half as they fell behind 35-0. Saturday, they could almost do no wrong on third down, with the Bruins failing on their first six attempts and only converting 1 of 7 in the half and 3 of 14 in the game.
“The whole idea was, if we could make it one dimensional, then we could give the new quarterback (UCLA freshman Josh Rosen) some exotics (blitzing) and get after him a little bit,” Graham said. “We kept him out of rhythm in the passing game even though he executed some good plays, he’s a tough guy, really talented young man. I don’t think he ever got a rhythm.”
ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell moved back to the sidelines after spending the last three games in the press box, and gave sophomore Demario Richard a heaping of carries in the first half in order to establish the run and get UCLA to react to it.
From there, opportunities in the zone read for Bercovici opened up, and once he started to take them, ASU’s offense began to look as capable as it has all season.
It was Becovici’s 34 yard touchdown run that put ASU up 22-10 early in the third quarter, and all told the Sun Devils had 192 rushing yards, with Richard getting a hard-earned 79 on 23 carries and Ballage carrying it 11 times for 59 yards.
Perhaps most importantly, ASU lost no fumbles in the game, after losing seven through their first four games. Bercovici, who completed 27 of 44 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns, had one interception, but ASU’s improved ball security proved to be as vital as expected.
“We believe in the high standards that we set,” Graham said. “It was about character. What you see is that our character was exposed. It’s not going to be easy. It has never been easy. I’m not going to apologize for the expectations. I’m not going to ask our players to work like they do and have any other expectation other than to win championships, and guess what, we’re still playing for one.”