For three quarters of Saturday's game, it would've been hard to give any Arizona State player praise. 15 minutes later there were plenty of viable options, thanks to the 13-0 fourth quarter run Taylor Kelly and the defense combined to rattle off.
ASU fans probably didn't enjoy the down to the wire finish. Yet overcoming the 12-point deficit on the road signified huge progress for the program. In previous seasons, the Sun Devils would've lost because of their road woes and deficiencies in close games.
Not the case under Todd Graham.
Championship-caliber teams prevail in their disappointing outings. ASU hopes to be among the championship-caliber teams, and somehow grinding it out over Utah was a pivotal step. Style points are overrated.
What three players deserve the majority of the credit? Let's find out!
Entire ASU defense
It would be unfair to leave any single ASU defender out. Chris Young went sideline-to-sideline for a career-high 14 tackles. Will Sutton posted a career-high nine tackles and sealed the victory on his first career interception. Robert Nelson had an unreal acrobatic interception, leaping through the air and keeping his foot in bounds. Gannon Conway and Davon Coleman combined to tally four tackles for loss. There are plenty of other examples.
Kelly and the offense usually carry the defense, but it was a complete role reversal on Saturday. Prior to the contest, the least the Utes had scored at Rice-Eccles stadium in 2013 was 27 points against Stanford and UCLA. The Cardinal posses one of the premier defenses in the nation, and the Sun Devils' defense achieved more success in Salt Lake City.
At first the Utes instilled their will on offense by running the rock. Paul Randolph made the proper adjustments and stymied Bubba Poole and company to a total of 126 yards on the ground. If the ASU defense can keep up those type of efforts, the ceiling for the team will be higher than expected.
The offense needed life. The offense needed someone to step up. The offense found their answers via Marion Grice going beast mode in the final frame. Grice got 84 of his 136 total rushing yards in the fourth quarter. For the second straight game Grice didn't find the end zone, yet his 6.8 yards per carry revived the deflated unit.
There are numerous reasons why Grice is so special. Atop the list must be his vision, seeing the hole and hitting it quickly. In addition, his ability to stop on a dime and cut back is rare.
Grice allowed the Mike Norvell play calling to stay balanced. Without the contributions on the ground, Kelly and passing game wouldn't be nearly as good. Going forward, Grice needs to continue to keep opponents off balance by simply maintaining the status quo.
The game winning touchdown grab says it all. Richard Smith broke off the line of scrimmage, ran the slant route, caught it, and pranced into the end-zone after shaking off the Utah defender. It was beautiful and perfect. The Smith trip to pay dirt put ASU ahead 20-19, which turned out to be the decisive and final score.
Until week seven Smith remained on the coaches' bad side because of dropped passes and fumbles. Those issues seem like ancient history, as Smith saved the ASU season.