Arizona State's bid at a earning a repeat Pac-12 South title and shot at Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship came to a harsh conclusion Friday, as the Sun Devils fell in a thriller to Arizona 42-35. The loss, coupled with UCLA's blowout loss to Stanford, opened the door for the Wildcats to sneak into the Pac-12 Championship. While the loss to Arizona in what was essentially the Pac-12 South title game will sting, it's important to not forget the Sun Devils who performed admirably against the Wildcats. Here are our Game Balls.
Richard has earned himself a fairly regular spot on our Game Balls list this year, and the 17-year-old true freshman continued his remarkable season Friday with another strong game. While Arizona kept star running back D.J. Foster bottled up in the rushing game, Richard was able to break off a few impressive runs against the Wildcats, rushing for 68 yards on his 13 carries. In the second quarter, after Arizona blocked a Sun Devil punt and scored a go-ahead touchdown, Richard answered immediately with a 27-yard burst down the left sideline. While the Sun Devils were forced to punt on the drive, Arizona's muff and subsequent ASU recovery was followed by a five-yard rush by Richard to set ASU up at the Wildcat 7-yard line. Richard then came in clutch on third down, catching a pass out of the backfield from Taylor Kelly and beating an Arizona defender to the pylon for a touchdown. In the losing effort, Richard showed why he was one of the biggest signings from Todd Graham's 2014 recruiting class, and his performance this season bodes well for the Sun Devils going forward.
There's no mistaking how valuable Strong is to the passing game, as the 6-foot-3 receiver bailed out his quarterback on multiple occasions Friday. Taylor Kelly overthrew his receivers down the field on more than one occasion, but Strong bailed him out on a diving catch that appeared to injure Strong upon hitting the ground. Strong held on to the ball for a 50-yard reception, and his third down one-handed grab tied the game at 14 points apiece. In total, Strong amassed four receptions for 80 yards, but he consistently drew pass interference calls on Arizona that extended multiple ASU drives. Strong reached the 1,000 yard mark for the second season in a row, and the redshirt junior has asserted himself among the top NFL prospects at receiver.
On the stat sheet, Taylor Kelly looks like he had a good outing. But those who watched Friday's game saw at least three overthrows by Kelly that would have either converted first downs or would have resulted in walk-in touchdowns. Cue Mike Bercovici. Bercovici came into the game late in the third quarter, and while he may have come in too late for the Sun Devils, he immediately brought a spark to Arizona State. Bercovici went 14-22 on the day with a pair of touchdown passes. Bercovici did throw a interception that killed a possible game-tying drive and his throw on the climatic fourth down was out of reach for his receiver, but given another quarter or so, the redshirt junior likely would've produced more points. His insertion into the game didn't result in a win, but he provided a clear spark, and that spark was something worthy of acknowledgment.