In the middle of what may have been Arizona State’s worst performance of the season, two of its best defensive players were knocked out of the game on a single play.
Then a strange thing happened.
With senior safety Jordan Simone on crutches due to a knee injury and junior Spur Laiu Moeakiola in an arm sling for a shoulder injury, the Sun Devils played some of their best football in the last month.
Facing a 10-0 deficit and down three defensive starters, ASU turned what had been a catastrophic first half performance into a 27-17 victory with 17 fourth quarter points and four defensive takeaways to end the game.
With ASU freshman starting field safety Kareem Orr ruled out of the game minutes before the kickoff sophomore safety Chad Adams took his place, but after UW targeted and exposed Adams on two consecutive plays to start the game, ASU junior safety James Johnson went in to replace Adams.
But after Simone and Moeakiola both went down on the same play with UW facing a second and 11 at the ASU 42-yard line, Johnson was forced to move over to play free safety and Adams was put back into the game to play bandit for Simone.
Filling in for Moeakiola was ASU sophomore safety Marcus Ball who ASU head coach Todd Graham said only got four reps during the week’s practice.
“I can't tell you how proud I am of James Johnson, and Chad Adams, Marcus Ball,” Graham said in his post-game press conference. “I mean, man, that was impressive. It was guys that -- some of those guys, I don't think Marcus got any reps, he got maybe four reps in practice. So that was really phenomenal.”
Despite losing three defensive starters since that 11:35 mark in the second half, the Sun Devils’ defense only seemed to play with more passion and more aggressiveness – something ASU lacked through the first 22 minutes of game play.
Before Simone and Moeakiola went out, ASU’s defense had given up 258 yards for an average of 8.1 yards per play. After that, the Sun Devils defense gave up 289 yards on 54 plays in the final 41 minutes for an average of 5.3 yards per play with four takeaways.
Graham said with so many backups in, he had to simplify his defense a little bit and execute more basic plays, but with that change, the team also got a chance to pressure the quarterback and start bringing more six-man pressures.
“They’re a major pressure team,” UW head coach Chris Peterson said. “Our guys came out, they were blocking pretty good early on and second half, I don’t know.”
In turn, ASU had four sacks and six tackles for loss in the second half compared to zero sacks and two tackles for loss it tallied in the first half. Headed into the locker room at halftime, the Sun Devils only trailed 17-3 after holding UW to two consecutive three-and-outs to end the first half.
“I wish you could stand there at halftime,” Graham said. “That's one of the cool things about my job is I get to stand there in front of them and see the look on their face and man, there was fire in their eyes. It means something to them. We were in there talking about each other.”
In the first half, ASU allowed UW to have nine explosive plays and only two negative plays. In the second half, UW only had four explosive plays including the four turnovers in UW’s last four possessions.
In the fourth quarter alone, UW freshman quarterback Jake Browning was 9 of 25 passing from the field and had three interceptions.
“I expected everyone to step up, one person goes down the next person steps up,” ASU senior Devil backer Antonio Longino said. “We’re all going to pull each other, hand by hand and pick the next person up. That’s what we went over in practice that’s what we do as a team.”
This was the first time ASU has shut out a Pac-12 opponent in the second half since it played Oregon in 2012 and the Sun Devils did it all without Moeakiola, Simone and Orr – two of the three who are the main communicators on the field in Graham’s defense.
Moeakiola is a key component for the Sun Devils in terms of communicating and ASU struggled in games last year after Moeakiola got hurt against Colorado on September 13, 2014 and was limited for the rest of the season.
“We lost Jordan, who is our major communicator for us, Laiu who is a major communicator for us, and I think it's a great testimony to Marcus (Ball),” Graham said. “And I just told him to listen, just do what (junior linebacker) Salamo (Fiso) says, don't say anything, just do what he says.”
Ironically, Graham said post-game that Fiso was also an ASU player battling injuries on the field, but stayed in as one of the key leaders on defense. But with so many of his key starters out, Graham couldn’t have been more pleased with how Adams, Johnson and Ball played to close out the game.
“Well, I mean we got, obviously, smart guys,” Graham said. “Chad actually wound up playing bandit. James wound up playing free. James was taking reps last week at Spur. So, I got (redshirt freshman) Dasmond (Tautalatasi) on the side. I said Daz look, if anybody goes down at Spur, free, or Bandit, you're in. Any of the three. That's where we were because we had lost Kareem.”
But perhaps one of the biggest plays for ASU’s defense came when Longino sacked Browning on a third and 7 from the 19-yard line with just over a minutes left in the third quarter. That was ASU’s second sack of the night and Longino finished with two sacks and four tackles for loss.
UW was trailing up 17-10 at that point and Longino’s sack forced UW to attempt a 45-yard field goal instead of a 36-yard field goal. UW subsequently missed and the momentum swung back in ASU’s favor.
“My team needs me to pick them up on and off the field so that’s what I came out there to do,” Longino said. “That’s my last two or three games out there so I’m not passing them up, I’m going to give what I got.”
On the very next possession for ASU, the Sun Devils had a seven-play, 71-yard scoring drive in 1:57 minutes to tie the game 17-17 with 13:52 left in the fourth quarter.
After UW went three and out on their ensuing drive, ASU drove down the field and ASU junior kicker Zane Gonzalez made a 23-yard field goal attempt to give the Sun Devils their first lead of the night, 20-17 with 8:25 left to go in the fourth quarter.
And the next four UW drives equaled four consecutive turnovers.
ASU senior cornerback Kweishi Brown intercepted Browning with 6:09 left in the game, sophomore linebacker Christian Sam got an interception with 4:59 on the clock, junior defensive end Edmond Boateng recovered a fumble with 2:02 left to play and then Ball pulled off an acrobatic interception with nine seconds left to play – all but which capped off a hectic night for the Sun Devils.
Coming into Saturday, ASU was last in the conference in turnover margin in the Pac-12.
“Man, I tell you what, I'm just extremely proud of our football team,” Graham said. “That was the most chaotic first quarter I think I've ever been in. We lost our free safety this week in practice. We lost Jordan and then we lose Laiu. And we got guys that are third team playing. The first half, they had some really good things that were getting us a little bit outflanked and stuff and so we had to make a lot of adjustments and stuff on the move.”