1975 was a reason to celebrate for the Devils (Photo: ASU)
The 1986 Sun Devil team took home a Rose Bowl title. The 1970 team finished 11-0 and won the Peach Bowl. The 1996 Sun Devils were just moments away from a national championship.
But the greatest team to ever take the field in the maroon and gold came in 1975, and they represented the peak of the Frank Kush "Golden Era" of Sun Devil football.
The 1970s opened up in terrific fashion, with the aforementioned 1970 squad putting ASU on the national stage. That standing was reinforced in emphatic fashion over the next three seasons, with the Sun Devils, led by Danny White and Woody Green, going a combined 32-4 and winning the first three Fiesta Bowls.
However, when White and Green left after the 1973 season, the team came back to Earth a little bit, posting a pedestrian 7-5 record and failing to finish among the top two in the WAC for the first time since 1966. Thankfully, that "failure" was merely a brief bump in the road, and would ultimately serve as a prelude to greatness.
By 1975, the Kush and the Sun Devils had reloaded with the next generation of stars. Freddie Williams was coming off a strong 1974 season to led the ground attack, and future ASU Hall of Famer John Jefferson was about to take a major step forward while catching passes from the duo of Dennis Sproul and Fred Mortensen. But the real driving force of the team was an absolutely suffocating defense—led by another future Hall of Famer in Mike Haynes—that would hold teams to just 10.6 points-per-game.
Even with such talent on both sides of the ball, what the team was about to do out on the field was still remarkable.
The Sun Devils started the year strong, taking care of Washington, TCU and BYU in easy fashion in September. The cooler winds of October helped lead the defense in an amazing effort in which they surrendered just 22 total points in ASU's four wins. Yes, 22 points in four games.
The first real test didn't come until the ninth game against Wyoming, where the Devils held on to emerge with a 21-20 win. Things were easier the next week with a 55-14 dismantling of Pacific, which gave ASU some momentum into their bye week prior to their huge match-up with Arizona.
The 1975 installment of the intense inter-state rivalry between ASU and Arizona was dripping with implications. The Devils were ranked No. 8 in the polls by this time, the Wildcats 12th. The winner would take home the WAC title and earn a berth in the Fiesta Bowl.
U of A took an early 14-3 lead, but as we covered on Tuesday, the Sun Devils used the single greatest play in team history to cut the lead to 14-10 at the half, recapture momentum, and then drive hard to the 24-21, Fiesta Bowl-clinching win.
That set up a huge battle with Big Eight co-champion Nebraska, a match-up the St. Petersburg Times did not see going well for the Sun Devils:
The question here is whether Arizona State, from the less highly regarded Western Athletic Conference, can compete with a perennial national power from the Big Eight.
Oh, compete they did, and then some.
We covered the 1975 Fiesta Bowl game in detail on an earlier entry on the Countdown, but suffice it to say that it was an intense battle. The Cornhuskers took a 14-6 lead into the fourth quarter, but Mortensen, in the game for an injured Sproul, found Jefferson for a touchdown, and then Larry Mucker caught Mortensen's two-point conversion pass for the tying points.
Later in that final quarter, with just 4:50 seconds remaining, ASU kicker Danny Kush—son of Frank—lined up for arguably the most important kick in Sun Devil history. His 29-yard field goal was true, and the smothering Sun Devil defense ensured that the 'Huskers would have no shot at further points by recovering a fumble.
The game was won, and the legacy secured.
"From the players' standpoint, this was probably the most important game since I have been here," said Coach Kush after the win. "Not only was the game important for the recognition this team will receive, but it also helps gain recognition for the great teams and players we have had here in the past."
In recognition of their perfect 12-0 mark and a win over one of the elite programs, both the AP and Coaches Poll put the Sun Devils No. 2 in their final rankings. To this day, that is the highest season-ending standing of any Arizona State team.