The Arizona State Sun Devils stepped onto the field Saturday a battered team, desperately trying to end a losing streak and curtail a losing record, while facing a cloud of criticism from media and fans that had darkened as the season progressed.
Sun Devil Stadium was nowhere near capacity on homecoming, an event usually taken seriously in major athletic departments. Gold was dispersed in clumps among the bleachers, but the sheen of metal undoubtedly outnumbered the hue of gold.
And the Sun Devils looked defeated from the first snap. They gave up a 21-yard pass on the first play of the game and they answered offensively with a three-and-out capped by a sack for a loss of seven.
It wasn't any better in the second quarter. By the end of the first half, ASU had just six first downs, 36 yards on the ground, 97 in the air and was a ghost in the red zone. The Sun Devils went into the locker room down 17-3 and looking like a team whose heart had been deflated.
But the few Sun Devil fans that stuck around in the second half not only saw resilience in ASU's biggest comeback since 2010, they saw a team that is sparked by sacrifice and fueled by unity.
And it all started with senior linebacker Antonio Longino's decision to play his senior game through his hamstring injury.
"Tony Longino inspired me," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "Just the way he inspired his teammates and the way he played. Usually I'm doing my job but I was sitting there at halftime and I even pointed him out and I said man, it means something to him. He should not even have played. In no way did he need to play, in my opinion. And he let me know that that wasn't going to be my decision."
Before the game, Graham told Longino that if you don't practice, you can't play.
Longino said he did practice.
He got four snaps.
With only two games left to play in Sun Devil Stadium, Longino wanted to finish out his season at what Graham called 85-percent heath, in an effort to not only play for himself, but also for his teammates.
"That's just heart," Graham said. "Just heart. He had tears in his eyes, in the first half he did. He was bringing it. I mean he was inspiring his teammates and it wasn't going very well. And we're just trying to hold -- keep the walls from falling in on the thing, because you got so many things that are happening, so much."
Longino picked up the broken pieces in the second half one by one. He did his job. He inspired his defense with his heart on the sidelines and his execution on the field. Longino finished the game with seven solo tackles, two sacks for 17 yards of loss and four tackles for loss of 20 setting the Huskies back a total of 37 yards on the night.
"My team needs me to pick them up on and off the field so that's what I came out there to do," Longino said. "That's my last two or three games out there so I'm not passing them up, I'm going to give what I got. We're all going to pull each other, hand by hand and pick the next person up."
Slowly, the Sun Devils began to show signs of life as each player did his job to make pivotal plays. ASU tripled its rushing yards in the second half behind running back Kalen Ballage who rushed for 92 yards and two touchdowns, one on a 48-yard break to the end zone.
Ballage was shown on the Pac-12 Networks television broadcast passionately rallying his teammates on the bench after his second touchdown.
"I was telling the (line) to make a crease, make a hole so I can hit it as hard as I can," Ballage said. "We came out in the second half and we were very physical. We talked about it at halftime, just getting out energy up and our effort and it showed when we came out."
The Sun Devils turned a 14-point deficit into a 10-point victory. Defensive leaders morphed their d-line into a brick wall that rendered the Huskies scoreless in the second half.
"I wish you could stand there at halftime," Graham said. "That's one of the cool things about my job is I get to stand there in front of them and see the look on their face. And man, there was fire in their eyes."
The defense overall tightened, snagging three interceptions, one by defensive back Kweishi Brown (who now leads his team in interceptions) to turn the game around for good and two more (one from third-string linebacker Marcus Ball and one from linebacker Christian Sam) to put the nail in the coffin.
Graham said one of the moments he was most proud of during this comeback was the determination and grit of his wounded soldiers, Simone with a reported season-ending ACL injury, and Laui Moeakiola with a shoulder injury, to still put themselves on the sidelines to coach the next man up.
"Man, I'm going to tell you, I love sitting here listening to them and I love how they care about each other and how much it means to them," Graham said. "There was nothing but inspiring Chad, inspiring James, inspiring Marcus. What's amazing is Laui, he comes over there, he's explaining to him, now look man, when they line up in this, this is what they're going to do. He's coaching them up. Jordan is on his crutches coaching up Chad at safety. So impressive. I love these kids and I was really proud to see that."
Quarterback Mike Bercovici has been plagued by lofty and unrealistic expectations this season, possibly backed by one lucky Jael-Mary throw that captivated the nation's eyes, and because of it, has received some of the biggest criticism this season. However, Bercovici has made great strives in his first year at QB for this Sun Devil team and never displayed a defensive air but instead, echoed the same pride in his team that Graham did.
No, the Sun Devils are not the projected 10-2, Pac-12 South leader that many predicted them to be at the start of the season. They are however, 5-5 with a chance at a bowl game and a chance to finish out this season with every ounce of drive and passion they have left. They have a chance to define who and what they are playing for.
And for nearly all of them, it is each other.
"I wouldn't trade this football team for any other team in the entire country," Bercovici said. "We have a football team, like I said, that can compete, has passion and character- just like how we idolize Pat Tillman. It just keeps us waking up when that 5 a.m. alarm goes off and we wake up and Coach Graham tells us to do a handspring out of bed, that's what we do. If you want to put a pitchfork on your helmet you got to wake up bright-eyed no matter the situation."
This team is one armed with graduating leaders that have kept it grounded and focused during three hard-fought, heartbreaking losses in the fourth quarter. The camaraderie amidst disappointment is one that anchors this team in a program that strives to preach the same values to the players that both enter and exit its system.
"We were all a bunch of Pop-Warner football players that moved up a couple of levels and now we are here," Bercovici said. "We sit in this team room everyday, win or loss, we talk about the next man up. We talk about the word love, and we do love each other. It's an amazing thing to win a football game and to sing that fight song. It's something we'll never take for granted."
ASU football may be far from one of the top programs in the country this year. But the values of this program and of the players that create it, are ones that breed potential for the years to come.
"When you pour into these kids and you see the hard work and, man, it's been tough," Graham said. "It's been tough. But never, ever, ever have I felt that they did not play every snap and play hard and play with character. Because it tells me that we're doing some good things in what we're teaching these young men. We talk about each other and what it means to be a Sun Devil and you've seen it demonstrated today. That's heart. That's character. That was impressive. I couldn't be more proud of our football team."