It's not often a team converts just two of 14 on third down and turns the ball over twice, only to come back and win the game in overtime, but that's exactly what No. 14 Arizona State (7-1, 5-1 Pac-12) did against No. 17 Utah (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12) Saturday night in Tempe.
How does a team overcome offensive inefficiency to such an extent? Execute lockdown defense.
"If you really know football and you watch the game, the amount of scheme that we run, the amount of different pressures that we run? It's amazing, just how much we can execute and I think that helps us tremendously."
The Sun Devils allowed just 57 yards passing for senior quarterback Travis Wilson, who finished 12 of 22 with a touchdown. Utah scored 10 points in the second half, sure, but in context Arizona State punted five times and threw an interception while managing to make sure the Utes never took the lead.
"We pride ourselves as the bird gang," redshirt junior defensive back Lloyd Carrington. "We try to be lockdown each and every game. It's a mentality we take in each game. We go out and just try to dominate, and make sure they don't get too much in the passing game."
It was a far departure from the high-flying offense Sun Devil fans are used to seeing. But that also says something about this team. The 19 points Arizona State scored Saturday night are least number of points they have scored under head coach Todd Graham. A team that can win in any fashion needed is the sign of a team that can make a run at championships.
"These guys are winners," Graham said. "When you win close games it makes you better. When we beat Wisconsin last year, that game really helped us. It builds characters and belief. It helps the team tremendously down the line because when you win an overtime game it helps you win the next overtime game. There is no substitute for experience and there is no teaching experience in winning close football games. You cannot be a champion without winning the close games."
They're also winning with different players, take Demario Richard for example. He had a career high 116 yards on 14 attempts to help the Arizona State offense how he could. He's a powerful force inside, offering something D.J. Foster can't always provide.
"He is going to be a fantastic running back," Graham said. " I think as he learns and continues to be mentored by DJ, he will be a great back. Our running back core is special. Not just Demario but also Kalen Ballage. We have a great group of backs but Demario gives us power and diversity in our backs."
Arizona State is also now 2-0 in games this season decided by a touchdown or less, they're not only winning in multiple ways, but they're doing so against superior talent when they don't have all their weapons like Taylor Kelly against USC or an inefficient offense against the Utes Saturday. The maroon and gold also advance to 6-1 in such games since the 2012 victory over Arizona.
"I am very proud of the players and how fast they have improved," Graham said. "Their growth the last few weeks is amazing. They have a lot of heart and believe in our system."
That kind of faith is exactly what it takes to continue to build upon this win against the Utes. Arizona State will take the national stage again next Saturday against Notre Dame. The offense will need to improve, and while the recipe of Richard at running back and a stout passing defense did the trick against the Utes, it might not be the case against the Fighting Irish. What the Sun Devils proved Saturday is that they have a lot of different formulas to get the job done, and they'll need to pull out another one on the field next week against Notre Dame.
"We are very excited about the opportunity and where we're at," Graham said. "It is another football game and another week. We are looking forward to playing in this game. They are one the best teams in the country and with that comes great opportunity for us."