On three separate occasions throughout the past month, the Arizona State Sun Devils have found a way to lose a football game. Today, they found a way to win one, topping the Washington Huskies 27-17 to keep their postseason hopes alive and well in the process.
You couldn't have asked for a worse start if you are an Arizona State fan. Washington marched into Sun Devil Stadium and took a commanding 17-0 lead, using big, chunk plays on offense to gash a depleted Sun Devil secondary.
"There was a couple times we weren't paying attention when the ball was snapped," said head coach Todd Graham about some of his new defensive players. "So I am like, look, don't put your mouth piece in, get your eyes over here. Here is where you got to do this."
The Huskies drew first blood on a 35-yard field goal from Cameron Van Winkle, then scored the game's first touchdown three minutes later on a one-yard run by freshman Myles Gaskin.
It was a big play, however, that set up Gaskin's run. He carried the ball 53 yards through multiple arm tackles on the play prior to the touchdown, a theme that would turn into a nightmare for Graham and his defense as the first half wore on. The Sun Devils got their first first down of the game on their next possession, but that one, like all but one of their eight drives in the first half, ended with a punt.
The visitors extended their lead halfway through the second quarter, marching 67 yards in just over two minutes for what felt like a dagger of a touchdown. One play after picking up a first down on a crucial 4th-and-1, quarterback Jake Browning found tight end Darrell Daniels wide open in the end zone. The 29-yard pass and ensuing extra point gave Washington a 17-0 lead, and that felt like an insurmountable mountain to climb with the way the ASU offense had performed to that point.
Slowly but surely, however, the maroon and gold begun to chip away at the deficit. Zane Gonzalez connected from 40 yards out late in the first half to get his team on the board, and the defense forced a three-and-out on the next Husky possession to get the team into the locker rooms down 14.
Arizona State took the opening kickoff to start the second half, but it didn't have the ball for long. Facing a 3rd-and-8 on his own 39, quarterback Mike Bercovici was hit hard from his blindside and lost eight yards on a sack.
As it turned out, that could have been the best thing to happen to the senior signal caller.
The hit seemed to wake Bercovici, and the rest of the team, up. He was lights out for the final 25 minutes of the afternoon, looking more determined and confident as the game progressed.
"We have some of the hardest training coaches in the entire country and we have workouts in the summer where it doesn’t seem like it will ever end and you find a way to push through it," said Bercovici about his improved play. "This football team is composed with a lot of character and we just keep focusing on the next snap."
On the first two plays of their next offensive possession, the Sun Devils used back-to-back completions of 20+ yards to get into the red zone. They found the end zone for the first time three plays later via a Kalen Ballage pitch, and just like that, Washington's lead was trimmed to 17-10.
Browning and company answered right back with a solid drive, getting all the way to ASU's 35-yard line when they faced a 4th-and-1. The quarterback had an open Dante Pettis for what would have kept the drive alive with a first down, but the short throw came in too hot and Pettis couldn't hang on.
Arizona State tied the game with an impressive drive six minutes later, going 71 yards in just 1:57 on seven plays. Wide receiver Devin Lucien made one of the biggest plays of the game on his 32-yard touchdown reception, shimmying away from three would-be tacklers before easing his way into the end zone.
That score seemed to take the air out of the Huskies, who punted on their next possession before turning the ball over on their final four drives of the day. Gonzalez's second field goal of the game, this one from 23 yards out, gave his team a 20-17 advantage with 8:25 left. And thanks to some stellar defense, that lead would not be relinquished.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of (safeties) James Johnson, Chad Adams, and Marcus Ball," said Graham. "Man, that was impressive. Really phenomenal."
A Kweishi Brown interception stymied Washington's best chance at getting back in the game, and Ballage ran 48 yards on the very next play to make the score 27-17.
The ASU defense did a tremendous job in the fourth quarter of mixing up their zone looks, confusing a true freshman quarterback that was forced to throw the ball with his team trailing. He was intercepted by Christian Sam with five minutes left in the game, then had a receiver fumble the ball after a completion with two minutes remaining.
Lastly, with the outcome already decided, Browning threw one more interception (this one to sophomore Marcus Ball) in the game's final seconds. And with that play, the Sun Devil defense had forced four turnovers in six minutes.
"Those turnovers were big and it was fun," Graham said. "Kweishi was huge. Christian's was huge and Marcus' was a big one as well. That was great."
It took an all-around effort to get the Sun Devils back in this one, with Bercovici leading the charge before the defense took over. The senior signal caller finished the day with 253 passing yards and a touchdown, a fine performance considering how much he struggled in the first half.
The come-from-behind victory was one of the grittiest wins in the Graham era. Trailing by 17 and coming off three straight losses in which they played well but ended up on the losing side of the equation, this team could have easily rolled over and called it a year.
Instead, they rallied. Rallied behind the loss of Jordan Simone. Rallied to try to make a bowl game. Rallied for each other.
"We talk about what it means to be a Sun Devil and you saw it demonstrated today," said Graham. "That was impressive."