It wasn’t pretty, but then again, this entire first month of the 2016 Arizona State Sun Devils football season hasn’t exactly been a sight for sore eyes.
Still, just as they have all year, the Sun Devils fought back time and again in Saturday night’s Pac-12 opener against the California Golden Bears.
They fought after star running back Kalen Ballage went down with a knee injury. They fought after falling behind by 14 points twice in the first half. And they fought after allowing a 74-yard touchdown pass that broke a 27-27 tie in the fourth quarter.
The fight eventually paid off as Arizona State (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) broke out for 31 fourth quarter points en route to a 51-41 win on Saturday. The victory sealed the deal on the team’s fourth straight win to start the season.
“Like Coach Graham talks about, a lot of the (bad) stuff is self-inflicted,” said defensive back Viliami Moeakiola after the win. “The biggest thing is just doing our jobs as individuals, and no doubt we will come out with a victory every time.”
Those self-inflicted mistakes hurt the Sun Devils early in this one.
A nine play, 98-yard touchdown drive allowed California (2-2, 0-1) to jump out to a 7-0 lead just five minutes into the game, and that lead was extended to 17-3 after scoring 10 unanswered points in the second quarter.
Sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins was able to put the offense on his back in the team’s first possession after falling behind 14 points, carrying the ball for three of Arizona State’s eight plays. The last of those keepers, an easy eight-yard jaunt, went for a touchdown that made the score 17-10 with just 80 seconds remaining in the first half.
Apparently, that was more than enough time for quarterback Davis Webb and his potent offense.
Webb, who last faced the Maroon and Gold as the signal-caller of Texas Tech when the two teams met in the 2013 Holiday Bowl, had an even more productive night than when he threw for 403 yards and four touchdowns in that late-December outburst at Qualcomm Stadium.
The senior transfer had five scores on this night, including a 23-yard strike with 16 seconds left in the second quarter to put the Golden Bears back up by 14 as the teams headed into the locker rooms.
“I thought we did fine in the first half until the last drive,” head coach Todd Graham said. “We’ve got to stop getting soft right before the end of the half.”
While the end of the first half didn’t go as planned, the start of the second one couldn’t have been drawn up better.
Wilkins and company marched methodically down the field in their first series of the third quarter, going 75 yards in 11 plays to cut their deficit in half at 24-17.
The drive was a testament to the demeanor of Wilkins, who came out of the break just as cool and calculated as ever. The sophomore completed three passes on that drive and called his own number in the ground game on three more occasions, eventually keeping the ball for a one-yard touchdown run to cap the possession.
“The way we operate and train our guys, people would look at him funny if he wasn’t calm,” said Graham. “I like how he plays with a passion, and of course we want him to protect himself, but we’ve got to win the game too. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
From Wilkins’ touchdown run onward, the contest was the back-and-forth shootout that everyone was expecting heading into the night.
The next possession for both teams resulted in a field goal, giving the visitors from Berkeley a 27-20 advantage through three quarters of play.
Arizona State tied the game up at 27-all early in the fourth thanks to yet another touchdown run by Wilkins, but California struck back in a big way just three plays later. A 74-yard pass from Webb to running back Tre Watson quickly silenced the rowdy Sun Devil crowd, as Watson was able to easily go all the way to the house to break the tie.
Little did everyone know, however, that that would be the final meaningful touchdown for the Golden Bears on this night.
Arizona State rolled off 17 consecutive points after the home run ball, first tying the game on a 30-yard touchdown catch for sophomore Jay Jay Wilson (his first career reception), then taking the lead on a Zane Gonzalez field goal before finally going up double digits on a Moeakiola pick-six.
“They ran that place twice on us in the first half,” recounted Moeakiola after the fact. “The third time I saw it, DJ (Calhoun) made him (the receiver) climb up, so DJ is actually the reason why we got that pick. We made him go vertical and I was lucky he threw it to the climb out there.”
California was able to pull back within 44-41 with just under one minute left, but that touchdown would prove meaningless after DJ Calhoun returned the ensuing onside kick 42 yards for a touchdown of his own. That made the score 51-41, putting a bow on his team’s fourth straight win and the program’s first victory in a Pac-12 opener since 2014.
"We figured out a way to get it done and we went out there and won a football game,” Graham said. “I keep saying that this team has a lot of heart and I think they showed that in this early stage of the year.”
The heart, and the fight, has certainly been there for Graham’s team throughout the month of September. But the schedule toughens up now, and it’s going to take improvement on both sides of the football if the Sun Devils want to remain in the Pac-12 South title race.
According to Graham, that is coming.
“This conference is a challenge,” said Graham. “We can’t keep making the same mistakes, because the key to winning is continuing to get better.”