It’s become a staple in the Todd Graham era for the Arizona State Sun Devils. A rite of passage, even.
Two years ago, Arizona State was embarrassed at home against the UCLA Bruins before going on the road a week later and shocking USC. In 2015, the opposite happened as the Trojans blew the Sun Devils out of their own stadium before Graham’s team went on the road seven days later and upset UCLA.
So this season, after Arizona State suffered its first loss of the year in blowout fashion against USC, the question on everyone’s minds was whether or not the team could bounce back for a third straight season against a divisional rival from Los Angeles.
That question was answered with a resounding yes on Saturday as the Sun Devils knocked off the visiting Bruins to the tune of a 23-20 win.
“They were pretty upset about the way they played last week,” said Graham of his players after the win. “It was just a few little things that slipped away from us, but this week I could sense we were ready.”
The Maroon and Gold (and the defense, specifically), came out ready to go from the outset on this night.
After forcing a long field goal attempt that would end up being missed on UCLA’s opening possession, a Josh Rosen fumble set up the home team’s first score of the night. Those three points ended up coming off the leg of kicker Zane Gonzalez, a 35-yard field goal that was just the start of a huge night for the senior.
Those would be the only points scored in the first quarter, a 15-minute exhibition of defensive football unlike any that Arizona State fans had seen thus far in the 2016 campaign.
“We knew it was going to be a defensive game going in,” linebacker Marcus Ball said when asked about the low-scoring contest. “We knew we would need tremendous defense in order to get a win.”
That tremendous defensive effort continued for both teams in the second quarter.
The Bruins did tie the game up at 3-3 with a field goal of their own on the first play of the second stanza, but that’s where the scoring would stop for the first half.
The remainder of the quarter featured a combined nine punts from both teams and back-to-back turnovers on two consecutive plays for the Sun Devils, but a consistent effort on the defensive end ensured a tie ballgame as both teams headed to the locker rooms.
An interception thrown by backup quarterback Mike Fafaul (in the game after Josh Rosen headed to the locker rooms with an apparent leg injury) to start the third quarter was quickly turned into points by none other than the placekicker Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, the man they call “Legatron,” knocked in a 23-yard chip shot to put his team on top, simultaneously placing himself in a tie for first on the NCAA’s list for career made field goals.
Still, the Maroon and Gold offense wasn’t done. Less than two minutes after Gonzalez’s field goal, running back Demario Richard cruised into the end zone from five yards out to extend the advantage to 13-3.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Arizona State football game without some drama. The visitors from Pasadena rapidly got themselves back into the contest, first pulling within seven points thanks to a 19-yard field goal, then tying the game on a 52-yard touchdown pass from a newly-returned Rosen.
“We just played better,” said UCLA wide receiver Jordan Lasley on his team’s third quarter comeback. “That is all we needed to do as an offense is play better. Our defense was playing too hard for us to leave them hanging.”
The Bruin defense would eventually crack.
Quarterback Brady White found freshman receiver N’Keal Harry for a 14-yard touchdown strike as time expired in the third quarter to give the Sun Devils a 20-13 lead, and that advantage was extended to double digits less than three minutes later as Gonzalez hit his record-breaking 89th career field goal.
“If you’re a placekicker, this is a pretty good place to come,” Graham said when asked about Gonzalez’s accomplishment. “The weather is great and you’ll always have good conditions. It means a lot for me personally because I’m 51 (years old), and I probably won’t have another opportunity to coach a young man who does something like that.”
It was only fitting that Gonzalez’s final field goal ended up being the difference on Saturday.
UCLA would score once more on another touchdown pass from Rosen, but the Arizona State defense did just enough in the final 10 minutes of the game to secure the 23-20 win.
Fafaul (back in the game after Rosen suffered a right wrist injury late in the fourth quarter) did have a chance at throwing a 79-yard Hail Mary as time expired, but his desperate heave was intercepted by defensive back Robbie Robinson to ice the game.
“In the season, the key is getting better every week,” said Graham. “It doesn’t matter what they’re saying about you in week one, or week four. You just want them talking about you in Week 13.”
With tonight’s statement victory and the current mess that is the Pac-12 South, the Sun Devils have positioned themselves to at least be in the conversation for a divisional title in the weeks leading up to the end of the season.
There are still plenty of fixes that need to be made, and some potentially serious health issues at quarterback, but Arizona State is 5-1 and tied for first in the South Division after the win over the Bruins.
Were you expecting a Todd Graham team to respond any differently?