One week after struggling to find positives in a crushing loss against Oregon State, Arizona State had a multitude of strong performances in Saturday's win over Washington State. The senior day sendoffs for Taylor Kelly, Damarious Randall and others along with Frederick Gammage's first touchdown reception were all possible contenders for post-game accolades, but we've narrowed down our game balls to three very deserving Sun Devils.
In the course of four weeks, Hardison has turned from just another guy on the Arizona State defensive line to now having a strong case to be chosen in next May's NFL Draft. Playing in his last game at Sun Devil Stadium, Hardison made sure the fans in Tempe (or Pullman, Washington for that matter) wouldn't forget his name. Trailing 21-14 in the second quarter, Hardison made his first huge play of afternoon, leaping up to corral a Luke Falk pass out of the air. After pulling it down and securing the interception, he rumbled 12 yards down to the Washington State 13-yard line, setting up a quick Arizona State offensive touchdown.
Hardison tallied two sacks of Falk on the day, but it was his second that ended the Cougars' hopes. While Arizona State's offense had done enough damage to take a 31-24 lead, the Sun Devil defense struggled to get Washington State off the field, and the Cougars drove down from their own 25 to the Arizona State 33-yard line. But Hardison came up clutch again, sacking Falk, and forcing a fumble that Arizona State's Villami Latu scooped and returned 51 yards to the Washington State 18. It set up a D.J. Foster touchdown run that doubled the Sun Devil lead.
Hardison came into Tempe as a highly-touted JUCO recruit, and while it took him a year and a half to get his bearings, the senior has been making opposing offenses look silly as of late.
Foster didn't step up in Saturday's win, in fact he didn't hit 100 rushing yards against the Cougars. But make no mistake, Foster was easily the most important player in Arizona State's win. When Taylor Kelly was getting sacked left and right in the first quarter, Foster gave him some much needed assurance out of the backfield, and his 42-yard catch-and-run on a simple dump off jumpstarted Arizona State's first scoring drive, a drive that culminated in a 17-yard Foster touchdown scamper. On the day, Foster totaled 155 yards, and the junior continued his stellar day in the second half. His 1-yard plunge in the third quarter gave the Sun Devils their first lead of the afternoon, and his 18-yard dash in the fourth quarter extended the Arizona State lead to 38-24. Essentially putting away the Cougars.
With Jaelen Strong a last-second scratch with a lingering concussion, Smith indeed did step up, more than making up for Strong's normal production. The sophomore put together the finest game of his young career, totaling six receptions for 131 yards. But Smith didn't just haul in passes and rack up yards, he willed way his way into the end zone twice. He made a spectacular diving grab on a 42-yard pass from Kelly in the second quarter and also collected a 5-yard touchdown strike in the fourth quarter. Smith also was the recepient of Kelly's longest completion of the season, as the senior quarterback and the young receiver connected on a 67-yard pass that set up a Zane Gonzalez field goal.
With Arizona State's upcoming opponents likely double teaming Strong, Smith is a candidate to really end his sophomore season with a flourish, setting himself up for a breakout junior year after Strong likely departs for the NFL.