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ASU Football: Struggling Sun Devils rise again, stun No. 7 UCLA 38-23

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Arizona State rose from the dead on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, upsetting the Bruins and jumping back into the Pac-12 race in the process.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

PASADENA, Calif. -- The Arizona State Sun Devils were tired. Tired of sluggish starts. Tired of disappointing. And most importantly, tired of losing.

So they decided to do something about it.

Sparked by an early safety and a tremendous defensive effort, Arizona State (3-2) picked itself up off the mat and pulled out one of its guttiest wins of the Todd Graham era, a 38-23 shocker against the No. 7 UCLA Bruins.

"We didn't play very well for the first four games of the season," Graham said. "I'm really, really proud of the way our guys came in here and responded tonight."

The defensive unit was the one that responded first, opening the game with three consecutive three and outs before getting a safety. The intentional grounding penalty in the end zone gave the Sun Devils a 2-0 lead, one that they would never relinquish.

Striking while the iron was hot, Tim White kept his composure despite muffing the safety kick and returned the ball 63 yards, deep into Bruin territory. Three plays later it was White again, finding the end zone on a 12-yard screen pass that was well-blocked by his receivers on the outside.

Up 9-0, Arizona State's defense continued to fire on all cylinders. UCLA (4-1) got into field goal range towards the end of the first quarter, but back-to-back incompletions and a D.J. Calhoun sack quickly took them right back out.

"We pretty much dominated the line of scrimmage," Graham said. "We wanted to make them one dimensional and give the new quarterback some exotics (looks)."

By easing up on the number of blitz calls, Arizona State loaded up against the run and took the Bruins right out of their game. The dynamite rushing attack led by Paul Perkins was stymied to the tune of just seven total yards in the first half.

"The level of preparation we had this week at practice was off the charts," defensive back Jordan Simone said. "People saw a little bit of what we are all about tonight."

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen and company finally began to settle in midway through the second quarter. The true freshman led his offense on a quick 88 yard drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Thomas Duarte.

The Sun Devils responded nicely, mainly thanks to another big-time return from White. White went 47 yards, and while the drive didn't result in a trip to the end zone, Zane Gonzalez did break his streak of three missed field goals with a 31-yarder to make the score 12-7.

It wasn't even a minute later that the offense was back on the field, with Arizona State linebacker Viliami Moeakiola picked off a poorly thrown pass by Rosen just past midfield.

Once again, however, they would have to settle for three. This drive stalled at the seven yard line, with Bercovici's pass to D.J. Foster in the end zone falling incomplete. Gonzalez converted a 25-yard field goal to make it an eight point ball game.

It seemed like that would be all for the first half, but a quick lapse in concentration for the Arizona State defense allowed UCLA to get into field goal range. Ka'imi Fairbairn connected from 53 yards out, cutting the deficit to 15-10.

The quick drive and score down the field gave away some momentum, and Graham made sure the team knew it in the locker rooms.

"I was talking about everything we were doing wrong," said Graham.

They didn't do a lot wrong in the second half.

The defense came out and quickly got the ball back into Bercovici's hands, allowing just one first down before forcing the sixth Bruin punt of the night. Bercovici didn't waste much time either.

The quarterback called his own number twice out of the zone read, first for a big third down conversion, then for a 34 yard touchdown run.

"This offense is obviously scheme and seeing things that you like," Bercovici said. "If they are giving it, we take it. That's something I've really learned since coach Graham's been here."

Another three-and-out followed on the ensuing possession, setting up the Sun Devils in decent field position. Once more, they did what they couldn't in the first half, finding the goal line after driving into the red zone.

Bercovici found Foster for an 11-yard touchdown. With the score reading 29-10, it seemed as if Arizona State was close to pulling away and putting their foot down.

Instead, a resilient UCLA team rallied back. Perkins finally got rolling on the next drive, carrying the ball three consecutive times after reaching the ASU 33-yard line. The last run came from just outside the one yard line, muscling his way into the end zone to keep his team in the game.

Down just 13 points and with the home crowd getting back into it, the Bruin defense made their best play of the night, intercepting Bercovici at his own 38 yard line. Four plays later and they were in the promised land once again, getting a Duarte touchdown catch on 3rd and 5 to pull within 29-23.

Arizona State responded with a solid drive (one that included a huge fourth down conversion at midfield), only to see it stall three plays later. No sweat, however, because Matt Haack was about to come to the rescue.

The punter came through with his best kick of the night, pinning Rosen and company inside their own one yard line. The defense rebounded with a three and out, and UCLA coach Jim Mora chose to concede a safety in order to keep the deficit at one possession and get field position back. The ball was snapped over the punter's head and through the back of the end zone, pushing the Sun Devil lead to eight.

"If you punt from the five and give them good field position and they kick a field goal, you are down nine," said Mora when asked about the decision. "You want to keep it a one possession game and give your team good field position."

The strategy was a sound one, but it was all reliant on a defensive stop. They couldn't get one.

While trying to run the clock out late in the fourth quarter, Kalen Ballage took a handoff on third-and-6 and ran into a bevy of defenders. Despite being met by three Bruins, Ballage kept his feet churning and carried the would-be tacklers 18 yards, not stopping until he crossed the goal line.

"It was a good run," said a humble Ballage after the game.

The good run sealed the deal for the upset of the No. 7 Bruins. UCLA was the highest ranked team Arizona State have beaten since back in 2002, when Dirk Koetter's team upset No. 6 Oregon.

The victory also puts the Sun Devils right back in the race to the return to the Rose Bowl in January. They now control their own destiny to, at the very least, tie for a South division title.

"I don't ask our players to work as hard as they do and have any expectations but winning a championship," said Graham. "And guess what, we are still playing for one."