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ASU Football: Sun Devils avoid disaster, outlast Cal Poly 35-21

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It wasn't pretty, but the Sun Devils took care of the Cal Poly Mustangs 35-21 Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If there is one constant in the Todd Graham era, it is that the Sun Devils do not struggle against FCS opponents. In three games against FCS teams under Graham, ASU had won by a combined score of 163-20. Outscoring their opponents 115-0 in the first half.

Somebody forgot to tell Cal Poly that.

The Mustangs hung with the Sun Devils all night, rushing for over 280 yards and forcing two turnovers in the physical battle. When the dust settled, Arizona State was able to escape with a 35-21 victory in their home opener.

"That was difficult," Graham said to open his postgame press conference. "I'm really proud of our guys and how we responded in the second half. Hats off to Cal Poly, that triple-option is difficult."

Rarely does Arizona State face the triple-option attack. They did so in 2012 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Navy. They dominated the Midshipmen 62-28. In 2014, they faced it on the road against New Mexico. They won 58-23 in a runaway.

However, Saturday night was different.

"We just didn't handle the cut-blocking," Graham said. "They were cutting us down up front. We just had people not taking their assignments. You have to be disciplined and take the dive, quarterback and pitch and we could not get our ends to close the dive."

After punting on its first offensive possession, the Sun Devils went nine-plays and 77 yards in just over three minutes on their second drive of the game to take an early lead. Mike Bercovici found D.J. Foster on a 14-yard pitch and catch to put the Sun Devils went up 7-0 midway through the first quarter.

Arizona State doubled its lead less than two minutes into the second quarter with a Demario Richard 13-yard touchdown run. The Sun Devils led 14-0 and it looked as if the route was on.

Once again, nobody told Cal Poly that.

On the ensuing drive, the Mustangs drove 64 yards in eight plays for their first score of the game. Fullback Joe Protheroe scored from four yards out to pull Cal Poly within 14-7 with 10:32 left in the half.

The Mustangs only attempted eight passes all night. They only tallied 46 passing yards and their triple option wasn't anything ASU hadn't seen before. Still, Cal Poly put up 284 yards on the ground and held the ball for over 32 minutes.

"It's a very disciplined offensive scheme," said safety Jordan Simone. "We just have to do what we are coached to do. If one person doesn't do what they are coached to do, it's out the gate. We only gave up 21 points, I thought we played great defensively. How we responded to adversity is what is going to make us a better defense in the end."

Adversity hit ASU throughout the game, mostly in the form of injuries. Ami Latu, Armand Perry and Antonio Longinio all left the game at some point with injuries. Perry did not return and was on crutches after the game.

"It's smashmouth football," Simone said. "They are going to try to run downhill. It's physical vs. physical and the man that beats the other man is going to win."

Longino put it a different way.

"They weren't really that physical, that's why they were cut blocking," said Longino.

ASU went up 21-7 with just over seven minutes left in the second quarter and was seemingly on its way to blowing the game open towards the end of the half when tight end Kody Kohl caught a pass from Bercovici to convert a third down and long to move ASU into Mustang territory. However, the officials called for a review and it was determined Kohl fumbled the football before his elbow hit the ground.

Cal Poly took over with 2:31 left in the half and drove 46 yards on 10 plays, scoring on a one-yard rush from quarterback Chris Brown with nine seconds left in the half. ASU led 21-14 after 30 minutes.

The Sun Devils took the second half kickoff and drove down inside the Cal Poly two-yard line to set up a first and goal. Richard was knocked out of bounds on first downl, he was tackled for a loss on second down and Bercovici threw incomplete on third down.

Instead of taking the three points, Graham elected to go for it and Bercovici was intercepted in the end zone by Cal Poly defensive back Fernando Cabico.

The Mustangs drove 75 yards and tied the game on a touchdown pass from Brown to tight end Reagan Enger with 11:47 left in the third quarter. It was Cal Poly's first completion of the night.

The Sun Devils went three-and-out on their next possession. On their following drive, Zane Gonzalez missed a 28-yard field goal attempt and the game went to the fourth quarter tied.

For the second consecutive game, it was the ASU defense that paced the Sun Devils. Following Cal Poly's third quarter touchdown, the Sun Devil defense forced four consecutive punts. Giving the offense time to mount a late surge.

And surge they did. With just over nine minutes left, ASU took possession at the Mustang 46-yard line with the game tied at 21. The Sun Devils took just five plays to take the lead when Kody Kohl caught a 10-yard touchdown pass with a defender draped on his back to put ASU up 28-21.

Following a Cal Poly punt, the Sun Devils put the game away when Berovici found freshman Tim White for his third touchdown pass of the night, this one from four yards to put ASU up 35-21 with less than two minutes left on the clock.

On a day in which No. 6 Auburn was taken to overtime by Jacksonville State and No. 18 Arkansas fell at home to Toledo, Graham is just happen to get a victory. It wasn't pretty, but it still counts as a W.

"It's a win," Graham said. "I'll take all the ugly wins I can get."