SAN ANTONIO -- A game that many expected Arizona State to be able to daydream through and still get a win nearly turned into a nightmare scenario for the Sun Devils.
Despite being an overwhelming favorite against a UTSA program that has been playing Division I football nearly as long as Todd Graham has been ASU's coach, the Sun Devils were on the wrong side of the scoreboard for most of the night.
But not when the game ended.
Trailing 28-15 after UTSA scored a touchdown on two of its first three possessions of the second half, ASU responded in a major way. It scored 17 unanswered points and held the Roadrunners to just 21 yards the rest of the way to win 32-28. The game-deciding touchdown came from junior running back Kalen Ballage on a direct snap out of ASU's "Sparky" formation with 3:15 left in the fourth quarter.
ASU finished its non-conference schedule 3-0 and will host Cal next Saturday in the Pac-12 opener for both schools. UTSA dropped to 1-2.
After trailing 28-12 early in the second half, ASU scored the final 20 points of the contest and scored its seventh largest comeback of the last 20 years, including its largest road comeback since overcoming a 22-0 deficit against San Diego State in 2002.
"I don't know if I've felt better about a win that was so hard," Graham said. "That was as hard of a win as we've had. It showed great character. We did as many things wrong to hurt ourselves as we could, but man this team has great character and I loved the poise."
The Sun Devils made it awfully tough on themselves, turning the ball over three times, while UTSA didn't turn it over at all.
With senior wide receiver and punt returner Tim White limited due to an ankle injury sustained against Texas Tech last week, Ballage and senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes each fumbled away a punt after trying to return the ball by catching it after it bounced.
For the rest of the game White played, but only to field punts. He did so without any trouble, even at less than full strength. But it was enough to help ASU earn the victory.
"I didn't like 'em," Graham said of the turnovers. "It wasn't very good decisions. Tim (White) was very courageous. Tim was available to play. Obviously we were trying to be cautious. We wanted him to go in there and fair catch, especially big in the fourth quarter, some of the field position. My heart stopped a little bit when he took off running."
After Hayes' gaffe, UTSA took the ball over on the 24-yard line and scored on its first play from scrimmage to take a 28-12 lead with 8:20 remaining in the third quarter.
The rest of the game saw the Roadrunners net just 21 yards. On the Roadrunners' next four possessions they failed to earn a first-down, punting each time. Not coincidentally, UTSA's inability to move the ball for a majority of the second half corresponded by ASU's move of senior safety Laiu Moeakiola to Spur in place of junior Marcus Ball, and the Sun Devils' spying of UTSA quarterback Dalton Sturm with their linebackers.
Sturm went 19-of-37 passing on the night for 229 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He hurt the Sun Devils even more with his legs, evading numerous sacks and would-be tacklers to account for 82 rushing yards on 15 carries. It was all the more impressive considering he was sacked four times.
"We started keeping two linebackers in the box," Graham said. "He's a good quarterback. He hurt us more with his legs. We went into the game and we said, 'the No. 1 they'll run is quarterback draw and quarterback pull it down and scramble.' We were very prepared for that, we just were making some errors early on. Running with the seam route when we're in man, things like that you can't do."
Sturm had almost no yards in the game's final quarter-and-a-half, either passing or rushing, as ASU's defensive changes constricted the Roadrunners' efforts to move at all, much less run free.
It took a while for the Sun Devils to get into a defensive rhythm, a reality that perhaps was in part due to the Sun Devils overlooking the Roadrunners, a Conference-USA foe that was 0-7 against FBS teams in its history before Friday.
"At the end of the day we are still the same team," ASU junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun said. "We are still going to get better, we were just a little cocky tonight."
Ballage and the so-called "Sparky" formation came in handy yet again for the Sun Devils, but this time it was only used sparingly.
Ballage had just one touchdown on the night, a week after tying an NCAA record with eight against Texas Tech. It just happened to be the game-winner. There weren't any other chances to be had anyway, as ASU didn't even get a single red zone opportunity until the fourth quarter.
"Heartbreaking, disappointed," first-year UTSA coach Frank Martin said. "Pointed out to the guys that we're not quite there yet. We're making leaps and bounds by the day. Great teams know how to finish. We're a work in progress. We're not a great team yet but certainly we're heading in the right direction."
If not for the placekicking of senior Zane Gonzalez, ASU might not have even been in a position to win the game late.
On a night that saw Gonzalez break the Pac-12 points record with 416, and tie the ASU career field goals record of 81 set by Luis Zendejas, Gonzalez had perhaps his best game as a Sun Devil.
Gonzalez connected on field goals of 54, 54 and 45 yards, missing only once, from 53 yards. On at least two of his converted field goals, the ball was snapped low and had to be pulled off the turf to be set up for him. It didn't seem to affect Gonzalez though.
A timely catch from ASU freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry in the first half was every bit as big as Gonzalez's two 50-plus yard field goals.
With 11 seconds left before intermission and no timeouts, ASU decided to try one more play from the 27-yard line before sending Gonzalez out. Harry, who was open for much of the night, raced down the sideline and made a diving grab which started with just one hand on the football to cut ASU's deficit to 14-12. ASU attempted a 2-point try, which failed.
"N'keal, wow," Graham said. "I like that guy. He's doing okay. I really am just impressed with how he's growing and the structure and the discipline. It's hard to do that as a freshman, to come in and do that. He's one of our premier guys. He's been a guy who has been consistent. He's been consistent high level all three weeks. The touchdown before the first half ended was really special."
Ultimately it was the veteran play of Gonzalez, Moeakiola and White that helped ASU remain unscathed in the win column, along with some coaching adjustments.
Sturm led the Roadrunners on a five-play, 95-yard touchdown drive to make it 21-12 at the beginning of the half and followed it up with a 24-yard touchdown pass after the Hayes punt fumble. But after that, UTSA didn't do anything offensively.
ASU finished with 469 yards of total offense to 322 for UTSA. Sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins had some missed opportunities down the field in the first half and threw one interception. But he was 7-of-12 in the second half and finished 15-of-31 for 264 yards with two touchdowns.
The Sun Devils didn't need a whole lot from the passing game in the second half, as they wore on the Roadrunners via a ground and pound offense. Junior Demario Richard had 14 of his 22 carries in the second half and finished with 95 rushing yards while Ballage had 14 carries for 62 yards.
Harry led ASU with five catches for 78 yards and Ballage also had five catches for 41 yards as he totaled 103 yards from scrimmage.
"That was a big, big win for us, especially moving into conference play," Graham said. "We showed a lot of youth, made a lot of youthful mistakes.
"It don't matter. All that matters is you win and we found out a win to do it."