Arizona State junior running back Kalen Ballage went from being in tears on the sidelines with a towel draped over his head in the first half, to pulling off a crucial fourth-and-one conversion and Cameron Marshall-esque hurdle in the second half en route to an ASU 51-41 victory over California Saturday night.
Ballage's tale of two halves -- as minimal as his touches were in the second half after suffering an injury to his left knee in the first quarter -- proved to mirror ASU's night against a high-powered Cal offense.
"He (Ballage) is a warrior," ASU sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins said. "This team is made of warriors. He's good. He obviously came out there and had a big, big play. He was the momentum shift moving to our Sparky package (on the fourth down conversion) and really got things going. Came out and he's just a warrior and he dominated."
Big play after big play in the fourth quarter, ASU prevailed against the Bears. ASU's offense stepped into high gear when needed, its defense rose to the challenge against Cal quarterback Davis Webb, and its special teams unit iced the game with the last score of the night.
To top it off, ASU's 31 fourth quarter points are the most by any FBS team in the fourth quarter this season. ASU has scored 50-plus points in 10 games against Pac-12 opponents under head coach Todd Graham. It had nine such games total from when the program joined the conference in 1978 through 2011.
With the win, ASU (4-0) gains momentum heading back on the road to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to play a 1-3 USC team next week. The Trojans fell in the final minute of their game against No. 24 Utah 31-27 in Salt Lake City on Friday. With the loss to ASU, Cal drops to 2-2.
"We're fortunate," ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said."I think tonight was one of those nights where we did reach down. I think our experience last week, we grew on that. It was halftime and you're not playing as well as you want and hats off to Cal and I thought they played really good on defense and really played some different looks."
The last time ASU was 4-0 to start the season was in 2007, when the Sun Devils started 8-0 and finished the season 10-3.
The Sun Devils' back-and-forth night with Cal was capped by back-to-back interceptions by Webb. ASU senior linebacker Salamo Fiso had the first interception off the Cal quarterback, dropping back deep in zone coverage and picking off Webb with 6:12 left in the fourth quarter.
“Turnovers were the biggest thing that lost the game for us tonight," Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said. "We just didn’t make any breaks for ourselves down the stretch and you need to do that in order to win against a competitive team. We have plays in three of these games this season where it boils down to the second half and last few minutes of the game. We made some plays and didn’t turn the game over against Texas and the games we lost, we turned the ball over. In the end that’s what it comes down to that we attribute our losses to.”
Playing in his first game of the season, Fiso's interception led ASU to a 23-yard field goal by ASU senior kicker Zane Gonzalez and the Sun Devils' first lead of the game, 37-34.
"They ran that play twice on us in the first half and after the third time I had seen it and D.J. (Calhoun) made the receiver climb up and so it was really D.J. who made them go vertical and they dropped their running back to the flat, tried to push them away, and I read it," Fiso said.
When Cal got the ball back on the ensuing possession, ASU senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola intercepted Webb again, this time taking it back for an ASU touchdown to give the Sun Devils a 44-34 advantage. ASU now has 14 pick-six's and 17 defensive touchdowns under ASU head Graham, second in the nation in that time span (Ohio State has 22).
Cal marched down the field to score a touchdown of its own with 54 seconds left to play and make the score 44-41 in ASU's favor, but Cal's failed onside kick led to a kickoff return score by junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun to set ASU up for a 51-41 win.
Prior to Fiso's interception, ASU tied the game 34-34 with 6:21 left in the fourth quarter after sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Jay Jay Wilson. It was Wilson's first catch of the season.
Lindsey said that play was something ASU had in its arsenal for awhile and felt like after Ballage's two runs out of the Sparky formation, it would be the perfect time to mix up the call.
“They were just running power, out of that formation all night," Cal safety Luke Rubenzer said. "I bit on the run, I take responsibility for that one, that was my guy. I was supposed to guard the tight end on the vertical release and he had me.”
Webb threw a 74-yard touchdown pass to junior running back Tre Watson to break a 27-27 tie game after Wilkins rushed in for a one-yard touchdown score. Watson's touchdown put Cal up 34-27 with 9:06 remaining in the fourth quarter.
It was a tale of two halves for ASU and Cal, with the Sun Devils outgaining Cal 316 to 269 in total yards in the second half compared to the first half when Cal outgained ASU 368 total yards to 138 total yards. Cal's 637 total yards are eighth most in school history and most in a game the Bears lost.
After ASU trailed 24-10 headed into halftime, the Sun Devils stormed down the field in an 11-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 3:41 of the game clock and ended with a one-yard touchdown score by Wilkins. ASU pulled to within one score, 24-17 with 11:19 left in the third quarter. ASU and Cal traded field goals before heading into the fourth quarter with Cal up 27-20.
"I think the reason why we played better in the second half, I'm not going to stand up here and say that it's halftime adjustments, because it's not," Graham. "It's the heart of our players and I don't want to say that lightly."
ASU's first drive of the second half was telling for the rest of the game.
After a first half when ASU junior running back Demario Richard only picked up 19 rushing yards against a Cal defense that came into Saturday's game last in the Pac-12 for rushing yards allowed with 296.7, Richard picked up 27 yards in ASU's scoring drive alone.
"I just think when times are tough you lean on your best players and you lean on the strength of your team and I felt like we needed to get some tempo going and moving the ball really good and handing the ball to our backs and we challenged our offensive line and I think they responded really well," Lindsey said.
The knee injury to Ballage clearly stalled some of ASU's efforts on the ground, but Richard is still ASU's featured running back. Ballage was hurt on a check down throw by Wilkins midway through the first quarter and didn't return until the beginning of the third quarter.
The Sun Devils' change in approach to pound it on the ground with Wilkins and Richard became a mainstay for ASU's offense, with Wilkins ending the game on 23 carries for 72 yards and three rushing touchdowns and Richard having 19 carries for 66 yards.
In the first half, it was Cal's rushing offense that jumped out to a strong start, as the Bears rushed for 134 yards in the first two quarters before finishing with just 15 rushing yards in the second half. The Sun Devils only gained 76 rushing yards in the first half, but stuck with the run later in the game and finished with 165 yards by the end of the night. In the third quarter alone, ASU scored 10 points and had 17 carries for 54 yards while Wilkins was 8-for-10 for 109 yards through the air.
Webb got off to a fast start, going 17-for-30 with 234 yards and three passing touchdowns in the first half. Webb finished the night 32-for-56 for 478 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.
Within the first five minutes of ASU's matchup against Cal, ASU's defense gave up 93 passing yards after Cal had a 9-play, 98-yard scoring drive in their second possession. Coming into the game, ASU was last in the nation in passing yards allowed, with a 379.3 yards average through the Sun Devils' first three games.
Cal junior wide receiver Chad Hansen was the Bears leading receiver, ending with 10 catches for 110 yards and one touchdown. Hansen only had two receptions for six yards in the second half.
“First half it was really just the two fades he (Hansen) caught," ASU sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr said. "I felt like they were missed calls though, on one I felt like he pushed off and on the other one I thought he was out of bounds. He was a good receiver, he did what he had to do. I executed my game plan against him coming out in the second half.”
Hansen came into the matchup leading the nation in receptions (40), receptions per game (13.3), receiving yards (546) and per-game receiving yards (178.7).
For ASU, Wilkins finished 21-of-30 for 290 yards with one passing touchdown and one interception. Wilkins also rushed for 23 for 72 yards and three touchdowns. The 6-foot-3, 197-pound signal-caller was only 5-for-10 for 62 yards with one interception and one rushing touchdown in the first half.
Wilkins' interception was the Sun Devils lone turnover in the game and was the first big mistake for ASU on the night. Wilkins' ill-advised throw was picked off by Cal junior cornerback Darius Allensworth with 8:04 left in the first quarter. Trying to target junior wide receiver Cameron Smith on the outside, Wilkins' throw was short.
ASU put its first points on the board with a 35-yard field goal by senior kicker Zane Gonzalez to make the score 7-3 with 56 seconds left in the first quarter. Gonzalez's 44-yard field goal with 6:30 left in the third quarter not only pulled ASU to within seven points, 27-20, but also tied him for fourth place in the NCAA career field goal list with 83 total.
"You see the veteran guys who made big plays tonight when it mattered, but it was still a lot of things we can improve on," Graham said. "Lots of lots of things, but my deal is I think we played great as a team. I'm really pleased with them, turnover the ball. We came out plus-two tonight, eliminate the turnover on offense that we have and had three takeaway on defense so that was big."