Sometimes the ball bounces your way, and sometimes, it bounces so hard it hits you right in the hands.
On Saturday night, the latter was true for Arizona State, as the Sun Devils capitalized on a pair of fortuitous hops and a high-powered passing attack to slam the Colorado Buffaloes 48-23.
After jumping back into the Pac-12 race with a resounding victory over UCLA last weekend, ASU picked up where it left off against the Bruins from the outset in its contest against the Buffaloes to improve to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in conference play.
"We're right where we need to be," ASU head coach Todd Graham said of his team. "It's like anything. You got to win a lot of close football games. We're six games into this thing and we have six left. If we can win all six of them, then that's exactly where you want to be."
ASU redshirt senior Mike Bercovici tied a career-high with five touchdown passes and redshirt junior wide receiver Tim White set a new career high with 144 receiving yards en route to the offense’s highest scoring output of the season.
Five of the six receivers Bercovici connected with recorded at least two receptions, and four different players hauled in touchdown catches, but ASU needed a few lucky hops to aid its offensive output.
The Sun Devils have struggled with ball security throughout the first half of the season, and on their first drive of the evening, sophomore running back Demario Richard lost the ball inside the Buffaloes’ 35-yard line for the team’s 16th fumble of the season. But instead of turning into a Buffalo takeaway, the ball squirted directly toward redshirt junior tight end Kody Kohl, who scampered untouched for a 28-yard touchdown to give ASU a 7-0 lead.
“You know we never want to put the ball in the ground, but we practice those situations, and fumble drills, you know hectic situations," Bercovici said. "Kody (Kohl) is one of the fastest football players on the team, and a tribute to his character, and being around the football, following the ball. I mean thats our mentality on offense -- if the ball is on the ground, we are going to go get it. And it was six points, so we’ll take it.”
The first fortunate hop gave the Sun Devils breathing room, and despite periods of inconsistent play on offense in the first half, ASU was able to rely on its ability to generate defensive pressure to build up an early lead that proved too difficult to overcome for Colorado.
Led by spirited play from redshirt senior Devil backer Antonio Longino (2.5 sacks) and redshirt junior SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso (2.0 tackles for loss), the Sun Devils recorded four first half sacks, forced three three-and-outs, and intercepted junior quarterback Sefo Liufau in Buffaloes’ territory on Colorado’s second possession to set the tone for the evening.
Longino's performance was among the most dominant individual efforts of any ASU player this season, and Graham opened his postgame press conference by lauding the linebacker for his ability to control the line of scrimmage.
"He's (Longino) coming off the edge most of the time, so it's something he does pretty well and we have adapted what we're doing to what he does well," Graham said. "So, I think he's played really well. He played really well last week and I thought tonight was his best game of his career since he's been here. So a lot of productivity and a lot of production."
The Sun Devils tallied a season-high 8.0 sacks against the Buffaloes, and Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre credited ASU for exploiting his team's willingness to keep its quarterback in the pocket in hopes of converting on vertical passing plays.
"We were kind of playing behind the eight ball and they knew it so they could kind of attack it a little bit, and if you just run the ball every time there and don’t gain many yards you’re not trying to win the football game," MacIntyre said. "So we had to try to find the way to come back and win it."
ASU’s defensive intensity eased the pressure on its offense, which struggled in each of its first three home contests this season to establish early rhythm.
With both of Colorado’s starting inside linebackers sidelined due to injury, ASU had an opportunity to allow its run game to open up a downfield passing attack. Instead, the Sun Devils flipped the script, despite facing an opponent that allowed more than 100 yards on the ground to each of its first five opponents including Nicholls State and Massachusetts.
The Buffaloes looked especially susceptible against the run after surrendering 361 rushing yards in a conference-opening loss against Oregon last Saturday, but nevertheless, ASU began the contest determined to establish a quick-hitting passing attack. The Sun Devils passed on 11 of their first 18 plays, and redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici capitalized on the approach by connecting on nine of his first 10 attempts for 89 yards and one touchdown.
ASU didn’t cross the 100-yard plateau until late in the 3rd quarter, but by that point, the Sun Devils already enjoyed a commanding three-touchdown lead thanks to four passing touchdowns from Bercovici.
After a four-play, 75-yard Colorado scoring drive cut into ASU’s two-touchdown first quarter lead, the Sun Devils reeled off 10 straight points thanks to a 22-yard field goal from junior kicker Zane Gonzalez and a 38-yard touchdown strike from Bercovici to White.
Gonzalez’s field goal immediately followed one of ASU’s best special teams plays of the season, as redshirt freshman defensive back Das Tautalatasi blocked freshman Alex Kinney’s second punt attempt of the evening deep in Colorado territory.
On ASU’s next drive, Bercovici’s hit White for the 38-yard score that marked the duo’s fifth connection of the night, and in the second half, the pair would sync up for a critical completion that helped ASU remain in firm control of the outcome.
Armed with a 24-10 lead at halftime, ASU didn’t waver in its commitment to the pass out of the locker room. On their first possession of the second half, the Sun Devils faced a fourth and two situation on the Buffaloes 45-yard line and elected to keep their offense on the field.
Needing a conversion to keep the momentum in their favor, the Sun Devils opted to pass, and Bercovici floated a ball that looked destined to fall short of White’s grasp along the sideline. Instead, the ball deflected off of a Colorado defender, and ricocheted toward White who corralled the pass and sprinted to the end zone to cap off a 45-yard touchdown play that gave the Sun Devils a 31-10 lead.
“You just play the game," White explained. "If the ball comes your way then you have to make the play -- the ball was tipped, and I was fortunate enough to be in the position to make the play.”
Both Kohl’s scoop and score and White’s deflected pass-turned touchdown undoubtedly changed the course of the game, but Graham felt ASU played well enough in its own right, and said those are the types of plays that go a team's way when it plays through the whistle.
"That was a big play in the game, the fourth and one or two whatever it was and he tipped that ball and then the first drive, that was huge," Graham said of White's touchdown. "And what it is, it's not, you know, it's guys hustling. We talk about covering the ball. So our guys are hustling and making things happen there. So you work hard and you play every play and max out every play, good things happen to you. Sometimes it bounces your way."
Defensively, the Sun Devils recorded 12 tackles for loss and limited the Buffaloes to just 1.8 yards per carry, marking the third consecutive conference game ASU has kept its opposition below the 3.0 yard per carry threshold.
All told, Bercovici finished with 260 passing yards on 20-31 passing, while the Sun Devils used a late 63-yard rush from senior D.J. Foster to help boost the rushing total to 231 yards on the ground.
Though the Buffaloes scored a pair of second half touchdowns, Bercovici engineered four second-half scoring drives to keep Colorado’s comeback hopes at bay and give ASU its second consecutive conference victory following a loss against USC two weeks ago.
ASU returns to action on Saturday in Salt Lake City as it will take on its fourth straight Pac-12 South divisional foe in the 6-0 Utah Utes.
"This week is just like every big game in the Pac-12, man, we get to go on the road and play a top-five team in the country," Graham said. "So, we're excited about that and we're exactly where we need to be."