PASADENA, Calif. -- Nobody (including myself) gave the Sun Devils a shot against the UCLA Bruins this week coming off of a 42-14 thrashing at home against the USC Trojans.
Fortunately, Arizona State (3-2) could care less what any of us expected entering this weekend, so when the final score read 38-23 in favor of the Sun Devils over UCLA (4-1) on Saturday night, while you and I may have found the result shocking, the players certainly didn't.
"We're not surprised," sophomore running back Kalen Ballage said after the game. "Up to this point, we haven't played up to that high level, but tonight we played very well."
Ballage made his season debut last weekend against the Trojans, rushing the ball nine times for 30 yards. Against the Bruins, Ballage finished with 11 carries for 59 yards and a rugby-style, "Beast Mode"-like run to essentially seal the result in favor of the Sun Devils.
However, it wasn't just Ballage whose efforts on the offensive end that made the night so special.
Demario Richard finished with 23 carries for 79 yards along with eight receptions for 55 yards, as well. Tim White (4 catches, 42 yards, TD) made some key plays on offense and the return game, D.J. Foster (4 catches, 57 yards, TD) flashed the ability that has made him a mainstay in Sun Devil football history, and even Kody Kohl (3 catches, 45 yards), Devin Lucien (3 catches, 34 yards) and Gary Chambers (2 catches, 38 yards) all contributed in what was a very balanced game, offensively.
"The mantra of our team is that we've been in this situation before," fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Bercovici said of the pressure leading up to the game. Said Bercovici of the team's mentality entering the matchup: "It's time to freaking go, man."
And freaking go, they did, with Bercovici leading the way en route to completing 27-of-44 attempts for 273 yards and two touchdowns, while officially finishing with 37 yards on nine carries that included a breakaway 34-yard touchdown.
"It's our team identity, it's who we are," said Bercovici. "It doesn't matter what happened the play before, all you know is you've got the next game, next play."
It's that mentally that enabled ASU to not only jump out to a 29-10 lead, but also hang on to the win in the closing minutes.
"We were good at staying on the gas pedal," Bercovici said. "What we did was we ran our offense. We really broke it down to doing what we do best, and I think that showed up today."
Bercovici and Ballage each rattled off high praise for the offensive line following the game, too. The group has struggled in each of the team's first four games this season, but turned it around in Week 5.
"The offensive line had an amazing game," Ballage said.
"They embrace that situation so much," Bercovici said. "It doesn't matter who's back there, you're gonna get first downs."
Against the Bruins, the ASU offensive line managed to help the Sun Devil rushing attack average 4.2 yards on the ground, while only allowing their quarterback to get sacked once with no other quarterback hits recorded. They were key to getting the offensive attack going throughout the contest.
Still, at the heart of the Sun Devils' victory was the stout, relentless play of its defense, which shutout the Bruins offense in both the first and third quarters, and contained one of the most dynamic rushing attacks in the country.
The Bruins were held to an astounding -7 rushing yards total in the first half. Paul Perkins alone came in averaging 128 yards per game, and he was only able to come away with 63 yards on 18 carries against the Sun Devils.
"It was impressive," said Graham of his rush defense. "I knew what kind of rush defense we had. We pretty much dominated the line of scrimmage there.
"We wanted to make them one-dimensional."
Graham's aggressive pass rush was equally effective on the night, as Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen struggled for much of the game and looked very much the part of a true freshman for a majority of the contest.
"It's a testament to our (defensive line)," safety Jordan Simone said. "It makes it easier to play defensive back when you have guys on your defensive line who go all out."
Behind their attacking defense, ASU was able to ultimately control the outcome of the game. Of course, this is the type of play that the players believe they are capable of displaying on a consistent basis.
"I'm not surprised (of) the way that we played," said Simone. "The level of preparation we had at practice this week was off the charts."
"The way our team responded Monday morning, you would've thought that we were at fall camp," Bercovici said.
Graham exclaimed that his team's grit and ability to bounce back following their loss against USC was what also helped ignite the team's performance.
"I was pissed about it," Graham said. "We were pissed. We played pissed tonight.
"Maybe we need to play pissed more often," he joked.
If that's the secret to success, then the Sun Devils need to continue to play with such passion. As long as the result is a win, fans certainly won't care how it's earned. However, there's no questioning that the Sun Devils earned the final outcome tonight, and deserved to come away victorious.
"What you see, when we face great adversity, you see their character exposed," Graham said of his squad. "That's what you saw tonight—a team with great character."