Senior day at Arizona State is special. Under Todd Graham, Arizona State was a perfect 2-0 on senior day, winning by an average of 38 points per game heading into Saturday morning's matchup with the Washington State Cougars.
It was a day that started in tears and ended in triumph for the Sun Devils, as the seniors led a 52-31 rout of Washington State. Perhaps the most emotional player during the pre game festivities was quarterback Taylor Kelly. After three successful season as the team's signal caller, Kelly ran out of the Tillman Tunnel for the last time on Saturday.
"I kind of lost it when I gave coach Griz (ASU Strength coach Shawn Griswold) a hug," said Kelly. "The hard work and the relationships that I have built with this team and how close we have became as a family, that is one thing I will remember the rest of my life."
It was the earliest kickoff at Sun Devil Stadium since 1999, and it was the Sun Devils who were caught sleeping in as the Cougars jumped out to an early 7-0 lead in the first half. The Arizona State offense went three-and-out on its first three possessions with minus-16 yards to show.
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk put the first points on the board on a quarterback sneak from 1-yard out to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead with 2:45 left in the first quarter.
One of the reasons for the early-game offensive struggles for the Sun Devils was the absence of Jaelen Strong. The redshirt junior wide receiver was a late scratch from the lineup, as he continues to recover from a concussion suffered against Oregon State.
Cameron Smith stepped in nicely for Strong, catching six passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns. Smith had just four touchdowns all season before Saturday and he set a career high in receiving yards
"Jaelen is a great asset for us, we just had a few drops early on and some misplaced balls," said Kelly. "Cameron Smith came prepared, he had one of his best practices had all season and he came after it today."
It was a familiar name that gave the Sun Devils their first points of the game. Following an interception by senior Damarious Randall, D.J. Foster capped a 62-yard drive with a 17-yard touchdown run to even up the game with less than a minute to play in the first quarter.
Randall's interception was the first of five takeaways from the Sun Devil defense. It is the second game in three weeks the Arizona State defense has recorded five takeaways. It is a number that Todd Graham seemed please with after the game.
"Five turnovers, yeah that's pretty good," Graham said jokingly to reporters after the game. "There are three things that we measure every day (in practice). We measure takeaways, tackles for loss and sacks. Those are the things that win games."
On the ensuing drive, Washington State marched 75 yards on 11 plays and took a 14-7 lead on a 1-yard pass from Falk to running back Rickey Galvin. The Cougars extended the lead to 21-7 with 4:52 left in the second quarter on a 20-yard pass from Falk to Isiah Myers.
Graham had seen enough.
"We had this whole plan that involved rushing four and playing coverage," said Graham. "We scrapped that when it turned 21-7."
The Sun Devils pulled within a touchdown when Kelly and Smith connected on their first touchdown of the day, a 42-yard bomb that looked very similar to Smith's touchdown reception against Notre Dame.
Graham's defensive scheme changes provided immediate results, as Falk threw his second interception on Washington State's next drive. It was Marcus Hadison making a nifty one-handed catch that turned the game and the momentum Arizona State's way. It only took two plays for the Sun Devils to tie the game, as Taylor Kelly found Fred Gammage from 10 yards out with 2:31 left in the half.
The Cougars added a field goal before halftime and led 24-21 after 30 minutes.
The Sun Devils dominated the Cougars in the second half. After punting on their first second half possession, Arizona State scored on its next five drives, including four touchdowns. The defense, forced four turnovers and two punts in the second half.
"We have an attacking style defense and we have a great crowd here," said safety Damarious Randall. "They bring a lot of noise and the other team cannot communicate whenever we are doing a lot of scheming, so that makes it hard for the (opposing) offense."
Foster ran for two touchdowns in the second half and finished with 15 carries for 96 yards and three touchdowns, while also catching five passes for 59 yards.
Despite their dominance on the scoreboard, the Sun Devils were outgained 622-330 in total yards. Falk finished with 601 yards on 45 completions and three touchdowns in Mike Leach's air raid offense. The redshirt freshman attempted 74 passes and the Cougars mustered just 21 rushing yards on 24 carries.
"Once our defensive line started creating pressure and once we started forcing turnovers, their offense started to slow down," said Randall. "They started second guessing themselves and that is when we started attacking more."
There is an adage in football that games are won and lost as a team. However, Arizona State's seniors carried the Sun Devils on Saturday. Kelly, despite his early struggles, finished an efficient 15 of 25 for 232 yards and four touchdowns. He did not turnover the football.
On defense, Randall led all players with 11 total tackles and he added a tackle for loss, an interception and two pass break ups. Senior defensive end Marcus Hardison tallied three tackles, two sacks and an interception.
"That guy is in beast mode," said Todd Graham about Hardison. "I told him from the beginning what his potential was. I think something has just clicked. I am really proud of him, he's a guy who is going to make a great living playing this game in the future."
Hardison, Randall, Kelly and all of seniors on the Sun Devil roster were honored before the game. According to Graham, most of them were in tears after the ceremony. During the game, their team helped to send them out with another victory on senior day. After the game, the focus was on keeping the Territorial Cup in Tempe and hopefully winning their second consecutive Pac-12 South Title.
"You can win 11 games and be 11-0. If you lose this one, it is an unsuccessful season," said Graham. "You can go in and look at my staff room, this game is starred on the wall. It is the most important game of the year."