After failing to come through in so many big moments through the past decade, it's easy to see why the Arizona State Sun Devils had doubters coming into Saturday afternoon's homecoming game against Washington.
The Sun Devils' most recent defeat came on the national stage in Dallas, Texas at the hands of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Arizona State was favored heading into the Shamrock Series showdown, and after dropping a devastating 37-34 contest, the stands weren't close to capacity for the homecoming affair against No. 20 Washington.
In fact, Husky fans filled their sections at Sun Devil Stadium while many ASU fans elected to stay home and watch on television, or hear about the game later. The faithful that did show up in Tempe on Saturday afternoon didn't leave disappointed, as the Sun Devils put together their best effort of the season in a dominant 53-24 victory against their foes from the North.
"I am just very impressed with our total team performance," Sun Devil coach Todd Graham said. "What are amazing to me are all the mistakes. We can play a whole lot better than we played tonight and we played really, really well so we have a chance."
Graham's squad entered the game with a 4-2 record and just seven votes in the latest AP poll, an afterthought among Pac-12 contenders. But on Saturday, the Sun Devil team proved it belonged back in the conversation of Pac-12 title representatives with a thorough dismantling of an overmatched Husky squad.
The Huskies entered the game with gaudy statistics on both sides of the ball and even pieced together an ideal drive on their offense's opening series. After the first quarter, the Huskies led 7-3 and that's when the onslaught began.
Arizona State outscored Washington 26-0 in the second quarter and established its defensive game plan so effectively that Husky quarterback Keith Price had no chance at guiding his team to a comeback. The Sun Devils punished the 6-foot-1 senior and charged into the backfield on nearly every Husky pass attempt.
"I think one of the things of this week was it was a really good week of preparation for us," Sun Devil defensive end Gannon Conway said. "We came out and did what we were supposed to do, did our 1/11th and everybody did it. When the play came to them, they made the play and that allowed us to have a lot of success on defense."
Arizona State Devilbacker Carl Bradford showed off new dimensions to his game in the first half and was a constant presence in the pass rush. Bradford tallied two tackles for loss, one sack, one pass breakup and a whole lot of nightmares for Keith Price. Graham praised the redshirt junior for his efforts and wasn't afraid to toss around superlatives.
"Carl's unblockable. If he doesn't want you to block him, he's not going to let you block him," Graham said. "He's really, really talented."
One of the keys for Arizona State was the continued emergence of Gannon Conway as a legitimate threat to break into the Husky backfield on a regular basis. Conway registered four tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack and owned one-on-one situations against Washington tackles Ben Riva and Micah Hatchie.
"We were all flying around, we had a really good night and we were just doing what we were coached to do," Conway said.
Regardless of what the Sun Devil coaching staff dialed up on Saturday, everything seemed to click. The energy the Sun Devil front brought to the field was practically palpable, and Conway credits the leadership Will Sutton and Chris Young provided for the sustained excellence.
"When Will gets talking, he really pumps some people up, he gets the whole D-Line going," Conway said. "I felt like tonight, Chris Young, CY was always around there saying, ‘Let's get going, let's get going,' so it helped the whole D-Line, the whole defense as a whole."
Graham said after the game that so much of Arizona State's defensive success was Conway and Davon Coleman's abilities to recognize Washington's protection schemes. When the Huskies slide their front five to account for Bradford and Will Sutton, Conway and Colemen held their own and attacked Price and Husky running back Bishop Sankey with reckless abandon.
"We had a plan, we came every play but we came differently than we have been doing with a lot of pressure inside and out," Graham said "Our players called much of the stunts tonight, which was impressive. We basically had automatic front coverage, so I'm really proud of the way they executed."
When Graham found out that Conway was actually sitting in the back row of his press conference, he jokingly toned down the nature of his comments.
"Oh Gannon, I didn't know you were in here, otherwise I wouldn't have said positive things about you," Graham said.
Of course, Conway, Bradford and Coleman were just three of the key pieces on the Sun Devil defensive front. All-American Will Sutton enjoyed a breakout game, as he busted through the Husky offensive line on numerous occasions.
Sutton accumulated a team-high three tackles for loss and like the rest of his linemates, added a sack in a remarkably efficient effort. Sutton wasn't phased by Washington's vaunted rushing game and his enthusiasm proved to be infectious on Saturday. Husky coach Steve Sarkisian didn't single out any Sun Devil players, but he did shed some light on where Sutton and company took control of the game from.
"The line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, quite honestly. Our inability to block them up front, whether it be in the run game or the pass game," Sarkisian said when asked about the most troubling part of Washington's loss.
The Huskies came into Saturday's game armed with one of the best rushing offenses in the Pac-12 (248.0 yards per game) and the nation's per game leader in rushing yards in Bishop Sankey. Washington exited Tempe with negative five rushing yards on the afternoon and a need to reevaluate its game plans moving forward.
"That was embarrassing. That was embarrassing," Sarkisian repeated. "We weren't good enough. We weren't good enough. We weren't well enough coached, we didn't perform well enough, and we weren't physical enough, nearly physical enough against a good football team."
Predicting such a dominant performance from Arizona State's defensive line would have been impossible coming into Saturday's game. The Sun Devils notched seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss against a Washington offense that put quite a scare into Stanford and Oregon in consecutive weeks.
Still, the Sun Devil defensive line wasn't the only group of big boys who earned their stripes on Saturday. Arizona State's offensive line paved the way for 314 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground for an offense that hung 53 points on one of the conference's stingiest defenses.
"The offensive line, they had a great week of practice this week," quarterback Taylor Kelly said. "Coming out to practice with great energy and it paid off, they wanted to establish themselves coming off the football against a great front seven of Washington."
Kelly set a career-high with 84 rushing yards and two touchdowns and broke off three different runs of more than 20 yards. Though impressive, Kelly's 6.5 yards per carry still fell short of running back Marion Grice's 7.5 yards per rush average. Grice fell a yard short of his career high with a 158-yard effort and two rushing touchdowns.
Grice also snagged a one-handed touchdown in the corner of the end zone and tapped his back heel in one of the most acrobatic scores of his career. After the game, Graham kept his comments about Grice short and sweet.
"Marion Grice was unbelievable tonight. I love watching him," Graham said.
The Sun Devils' 53-24 victory will go down as the most impressive win of the Graham era thus far. Arizona State defeated a ranked opponent by 29 points, its most lopsided victory against a ranked opponent since a 44-7 win against Iowa in 2004.
Kelly credits the extra work and commitment the Sun Devils have put in this season to their hard-earned results. Without the whole team buying in, wins like Saturday's wouldn't be possible.
"Guys are practicing harder each week, preparing harder each week. They're up here at 10:30, 11 o'clock at night watching film just trying to get better and do their job," Kelly said.
With the win, Arizona State improves to 5-2 on the season and could find itself in the driver's seat in the Pac-12 South after a bye next weekend. The UCLA Bruins will take on the Oregon Ducks on Saturday after falling to Stanford this Saturday, and the Sun Devils sit at 3-1 in conference play. If the Bruins lose, the Sun Devils would be the lone team in the Pac-12 South with one loss.
Even with Saturday's result and the knowledge that Arizona State could be in prime position to take the Pac-12 South, Gannon Conway and the Sun Devils won't be looking too far ahead .
"Obviously it feels great, but we still have a hell of a schedule coming up," Conway said. This game, we're just going to have to learn from it, but we have to get better this week, prepare to win the whole South."