No one said it would be easy for Arizona State, but one man has always said that the Sun Devils could get the job done. That man? Head coach Todd Graham.
From the moment he arrived in Tempe, he preached about character, discipline, and winning and on Saturday night in Pasadena, the Sun Devils made good on all three of Graham's promises in a 38-35 victory over the UCLA Bruins.
Arizona State has been criticized for its road struggles this season, but the Sun Devils responded in the first half of Saturday's game with its finest performance of the season.
The Sun Devils jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead after electing to receive the opening kickoff and driving down to complete a 7-play, 76-yard drive. The Bruins reacted with a long kickoff return before quarterback Brett Hundley found Devin Lucien for a 42-yard touchdown pass on the first play of UCLA's opening drive.
After a Ka'imi Fairbairn field goal gave UCLA a 10-7 advantage, the Sun Devils played their best football of the Todd Graham era for the rest of the first half.
D.J. Foster gave Arizona State a 14-10 lead on a 3-yard touchdown run and on the Bruins' next drive, Hundley was intercepted by Devil backer Carl Bradford who returned the pick 18 yards for a touchdown.
Late in the first half, Michael Eubank pushed the score to 21-10 on a fourth and goal keeper. Fairbairn connected on another field goal to pull the Bruins within 15, but UCLA left 1:37 on the clock which proved to be too much for Taylor Kelly and Co.
The Sun Devils took a risk by running a play with no timeouts and 11 seconds on the clock, but the gamble paid off when Jaelen Strong hauled in a 19-yard touchdown pass with five seconds left to give Arizona State a 35-13 halftime lead.
Once the teams retreated to their locker rooms, the tide turned in the Rose Bowl.
UCLA came out firing in the second half as Hundley engineered back-to-back scoring drives sandwiched around a Sun Devil three-and-out. Then, the Sun Devils couldn't convert a red zone opportunity into a touchdown and settled for a 28-yard Zane Gonzalez field goal.
Armed with a 38-27 lead, the Sun Devils felt anything but comfortable. On the ensuing Bruins' drive, UCLA converted a fourth down just across midfield when offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone drew up a little trickery. Defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes snuck out of the UCLA backfield on a play-action play and Hundley found the freshman for an 18-yard completion.
After the fourth down conversion, Hundley hit lightning-fast wideout Shaquelle Evans for a 27-yard touchdown pass that drew the Bruins within five. The Sun Devils locked down UCLA on the two-point conversion attempt as safety Alden Darby intercepted Hundley's pas.
Kelly and the Sun Devils' offense couldn't answer on the following drive, and UCLA had a chance to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter. Led by the scrambling ability of Hundley and the hard-nosed running of running back Paul Perkins, the Bruins drove down into the red zone and faced third down and five from the 7-yard line.
On the next play, Sun Devil linebacker Chris Young burst into the backfield and tied up Hundley around his ankles and dropped him for Arizona State's seventh sack of the evening. The loss proved costly, as Fairbairn pushed his 37-yard field goal attempt wide right.
With a chance to ice the game, the Sun Devil offense went three and out and gave the ball back to UCLA for one final drive. What took place next is not for the faint of heart.
The Bruins found themselves in immediate trouble as Young kicked off the drive with another sack, but Hundley converted a fourth down and five pass to Evans for 15 yards that pushed UCLA across midfield.
That's when penalties came back to haunt the Bruins. UCLA committed two consecutive 10-yard penalties that forced the Bruins into a first down and 30 situation that proved to be too much to overcome. A fourth down completion fell short of the first down marker, and the Sun Devils took a quick knee to seal up their first Pac-12 South Championship.
Arizona State was outscored 20-3 in the second half, but the Sun Devil defense came up big when the team needed it most. Because of that, the Sun Devils will return to Tempe as Pac-12 South champions and will play for the chance to host the Pac-12 Championship game against the Arizona Wildcats next Saturday.