Welcome to our new summer series. A lot has happened over Todd Graham's first three seasons as Arizona State's head football coach. Over the next two weeks, we will be ranking 15 of Graham's 28 total wins so far before the 2015 season, which has potential to send the program to new heights.
Before that happens, let's look at the games that put ASU in this position. Our No. 15 win for Graham saw the Sun Devils explode in the second half for a dominating win over Colorado in 2012.
At No. 14, ASU's last game of the 2014 campaign saw the Sun Devils go head-to-head with the Blue Devils of Duke:
No. 14: Dec. 27, 2014 - Sun Devils claim Sun Bowl Thriller
In many seasons, a trip to the Sun Bowl with a chance to secure a 10-win season would serve as the culmination of a successful campaign for Sun Devil fans. But after the emotional high of winning the Pac-12 South in 2013 and climbing up to No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings at a late juncture in the season, Arizona State's expectations extended beyond finishing its season in El Paso, Texas.
However, as the 8-1 Sun Devils faltered late in the year, falling at Oregon State and coming up one play short in a heartbreaking loss to Arizona, ASU dropped out of contention for the major bowls and was selected to play Duke in the Sun Bowl to wrap up the season. Participating in the Sun Bowl didn't live up to the high expectations fans have grown to hold for the program, but the game provided them with an exhilrating showcase.
Having benched him in the second half in hopes of pulling out a late win against the Wildcats, Todd Graham had to make a decision on whether to put Taylor Kelly back in the starter's role for the Sun Bowl. He opted to go with his senior captain, and gave Kelly the chance to lead ASU to a victory in his final collegiate game.
Kelly played well early, but it was the play of freshman Demario Richard that stole the show for the Sun Devils. After a 16-yard completion to Jaelen Strong and a 14-yard Kelly scamper, Richard capped off ASU's first drive of the game with a 9-yard touchdown run and ASU took an early 7-0 lead.
ASU and Duke traded field goals for the duration of the first quarter, and the Sun Devil defense gave its offense to expand on its 13-3 lead with a three-and-out midway through the second. Kelly completed passes to Strong, Ellis Jefferson and Gary Chambers as the Sun Devils marched down the field, reaching the goalline on an 11-yard Kelly scramble that converted a 4th and 1.
Kelly was the catalyst on the drive but Richard got the score, punching it in from a yard out to give ASU a seemingly-commanding 20-3 lead.
But Duke remained resilient, and their efforts paid off in a late-first half rally. Shaquille Powell's 32-yard catch put Duke in Sun Devil territory and he finished the drive off with a 14-yard touchdown reception. ASU's next drive stalled, and Matt Haack came out to fulfill his punting duties. His punt was fine, but ASU's coverage wasn't and Jamison Crowder brought it back 68 yards for a touchdown that pulled Duke within three points at halftime.
The break at halftime was much-needed for the Sun Devils, and they responded out the gate with another Richard score that capped off an eight-play, 75-yard drive.
From there on, ASU's offense struggled to do much against the Duke defense. While their offense couldn't put the game out of reach, ASU's defense and special teams did their parts to clinch the bowl win.
A lengthy Duke drive saw the Blue Devils reach the Arizona State redzone, but ASU cornerback Kweishi Brown bailed the Sun Devils out with a strip of Isaac Blakeney, and Jordan Simone fell on the ball to complete the turnover.
A Zane Gonzalez field goal put ASU up 30-17 and Duke's proverbial back was against the wall, but the Blue Devils rallied and put themselves in position to win the game. A pair of fourth-down conversions kept their drive alive and Anthony Boone's 14-yard pass to Johnell Barnes found the endzone, bringing Duke within six points at 30-24.
Following an ASU turnover on downs, Duke brought out its trick playbook, catching the Sun Devils and everyone in attendance completely off-guard when Crowder took a jet sweep handoff, pulled up and tossed a 12-yard strike to Blakeney. A game the Sun Devils had controlled from the get-go suddenly was in Duke's hands as the Blue Devils led 31-30.
With five minutes left, the Sun Devils prepared to get the ball and march the length of the field in order to win the game. But freshman kick returner Kalen Ballage had other ideas, taking the kickoff down the sideline 96 yards to set ASU up four yards away from pay dirt.
Richard's fourth touchdown of the day followed, but after ASU failed the two-point conversion the Sun Devils held a fragile 36-31 lead and 4;45 on the clock for Duke.
Fittingly, the Blue Devils drove all the way from their 29-yard line to the ASU 14-yard line, giving them four chances at taking the lead. Boone's pass on first down fell incomplete and Powell was stuffed on second down, leaving Duke with a 3rd and 10. Boone sent a pass to the corner of the end zone, and it was caught.....by ASU cornerback Kweishi Brown. Brown's interception was his third of the year and most important, clinching the game and the Sun Bowl for Arizona State.
WHAT IT DID FOR ASU: After the disappointment of the losses in Corvallis and Tucson, the victory in the Sun Bowl did what wins in either of those games would've accomplished: giving ASU double-digit wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 40 years. The win was big for Graham and sent ASU into the home stretch of recruiting for the 2015 class with momentum.