If you only watched the first half of Arizona State's four games this season, you'd never believe it, but the Sun Devils just went undefeated in September.
Should we call them the second-half Sun Devils? If they keep doing this, maybe.
For the third week in a row ASU trailed in the third quarter of a game on Saturday only to emerge victorious. The Sun Devils were in a bind again, down 24-10 to Cal in the Pac-12 opener for both schools before punishing the Golden Bears with 41 second half points in a 51-41 win.
After not generating a turnover in the first three quarters, they intercepted Cal quarterback Davis Webb twice in the fourth quarter, including an interception return for a touchdown by senior Spur Laiu Moeakiola.
With a 31 point outburst in the fourth quarter, ASU scored more points in the final period of the game than any FBS team this season. The Sun Devils are now 4-0 on the season heading into their first Pac-12 road game of the season, at USC Saturday.
"I'm really proud of our guys," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "The reason why they played better in the second half is because of their heart and how much it means to them, and what kind of young men they area. That's why, we haven't compromised. Our guys bring out the best in each other and that's where you see that. When you face that great adversity that's what you see. The great thing about football is you get to play 60 minutes."
A week after the Sun Devils trailed 28-12 at UTSA early in the third quarter before storming back to win 32-28, they again put forth a huge barrage of points. Trailing 27-20 in the third quarter ASU generated three turnovers and threw a lot of points on the scoreboard in a hurry.
Through four games this season the Sun Devils have been out-scored 69-75 in the first half and dominated opponents by a total of 126-75 in the second half. They're averaging 31.5 points in the second half on the season.
“It basically goes back to what coach says," Moeakiola said. "Just buckling down, getting guys settled and reminding one another to just do your job, because a lot of the stuff is self inflicting like Coach Graham talks about. It’s not doing your assignment, guys trying to make plays outside the system, so the biggest thing is just doing our job on the team as an individual, and no doubt we will come out with a victory every time.”
These aren't Houdini-like escapes, mind you. They're not slipping off the handcuffs in the final seconds before impending doom strikes. The Sun Devils aren't snatching victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat.
They haven't had to do that yet.
But they have made it tougher on themselves -- and their fans -- than it has probably had to be.
In the season opener against Northern Arizona they led by a surprisingly narrow 13-6 through much of the second quarter before eventually winning 44-13. The following week, against Texas Tech they trailed 41-37 in the third quarter before winning 68-55. Last week on the road at UTSA they were down 28-12 before recovering to win with 20 straight points.
ASU shouldn't have been able to only muster 10 first-half points and 138 total yards to a Cal team that's given up nearly 50 points a game. But it probably also shouldn't have been expected to erupt the way it did in the second half, either.
“These guys, they just played their heart out and one that's thing I think we have been preaching since the beginning is no matter what the outcome, what the issue is at the time, we've just got to keep working, keep grinding" ASU sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins said. "This team is built of warriors. Defense played a very good game. First half, that’s on me, I just have to get things rolling a bit quicker, but we’ll be good, 4-0.”
Wilkins struggled in the first half, much like he did against UTSA on the road. After the game, he took the blame several times for the Sun Devils' slow start.
“That’s on me," he said. "I have to make sure things get going. The first half, that’s on me.”
Wilkins threw just 10 passes in the first half -- completing five -- and the Sun Devils ran just 31 plays from scrimmage compared with 54 by the Golden Bears. ASU wasn't able to get any rhythm early, and in the second half offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey did what he's done in previous games in similar situations.
On the team's first drive of the second-half, it settled down they same way it has all season. Just as they did in each of their first three games, the Sun Devils ran the ball right at the Golden Bears, relying on their offensive line and running backs to bring the game back into balance.
"I just think, when times are tough you lean on your best players and you lean on the strength of your team," Lindsey said. "I felt like we needed to get some tempo going, get moving pretty good and get the ball to our backs. We challenged our offensive line and I thought they responded really well."
"We're fortunate. 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."
Wilkins' next play attitude has certainly contributed to the Sun Devils' second-half success. Like we've seen all season to this point, Wilkins was running around all over the place Saturday, sometimes with a plan and sometimes not. He's taken more than his share of hits, but hasn't looked bothered by any of it, not even once.
"I think he's got that kind of 'it factor' that you have as a quarterback," Lindsey said. "You're going to always get too much credit and too much blame. You have to be able to play the next play. I think he does a good job for a guy at a young age or with not a lot of experience. He believes in himself and believes in the team. I think in his mind he says, 'keep playing, keep playing.'"
Last season, ASU lost five games in which it held fourth quarter leads on the way to a disappointing 6-7 season. Graham has said repeatedly that they'd have to win the close ones this year in order to have the type of success they've come to expect.
So far, so good.
"I wanted to own the ball and we came out plus-two tonight, which was big," Graham said. "We need to eliminate the turnover on offense that we had. We got three takeaways on defense so that was big. I think the reason we played better in the second half, I'm not going to stand up here and say it was halftime adjustments because it's not. It's the heart of our players. I don't say that lightly. I think the kids have showed it. We ain't done nothing. We won one game. I'm really proud of the heart they show and they've done it every week of the season."