Replacing the most prolific scorer in the history of the Arizona State Sun Devils isn’t going to be easy for freshman Brandon Ruiz.
Or maybe it is.
The Gilbert, Arizona native converted a surprise onside kick in the first quarter and made three field goals, including a game-winning 41-yarder with four minutes remaining in ASU’s 37-35 win over the Oregon Ducks Saturday night.
First came the surprise onside, which Ruiz said the Sun Devils had been practicing for weeks.
“I was stressing that all day,” Ruiz said. “I knew we were going to do it. I had to perform well because I couldn’t practice it in warm-ups because they would see it, so it’s kind of a one time thing. Just go out and do it.”
Head coach Todd Graham is no stranger to aggressive special teams, and he said afterward that anytime he sees something he can do there to give his team momentum, he’s going to try it.
“We come to win,” Graham said. “If we think we can take advantage of something someone’s doing, we’re going to do it.”
So after redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins found sophomore N’Keal Harry to put ASU ahead, Graham deployed his weapon, which did not go exactly as planned, but worked nonetheless.
“It was supposed to be recovered by me,” Ruiz said. “It was a little behind me, so when I dove I tried to dive again, but thankfully (freshman safety) Evan [Fields] was there.”
Fields’s recovery led to Ruiz’s first field goal, a 29-yard boot that put ASU up 17-7 at the end of the first period of play.
Ruiz added a 24-yard kick at the start of the final period, extending ASU’s lead to six points, but his most important moment of the night would come later in the quarter after an Oregon response.
Down 35-34 with 6:32 remaining, the Sun Devils had the ball on their own 20. But Ruiz was already visualizing what was going to happen on the other end of the field.
“I was like, ‘okay, this is going to come down to me,’” Ruiz said.
With the help of junior running back Demario Richard and redshirt junior receiver Jalen Harvey, ASU marched the football down to the Oregon 23-yard line, well within Ruiz’s range, which he says stretches to about 55 yards.
“This week I made all my game-winners in practice, so I was extremely confident,” Ruiz said. “I thought it was like God’s way of telling me, ‘this is your destiny,’ so I needed to go out there and make the kick.”
And he did. Right down the middle, earning ASU a win and the praise of his head coach.
“Pretty good little freshman kicker to kick that through there like that,” Graham said. “I’m pretty proud of him.”
Stepping in for Zane Gonzalez has it’s share of pressures attached, both inward and outward, but for Ruiz on Saturday, he stepped up to the plate and did something not even his predecessor did: make a game-winner as a freshman.
“Sometimes it kind of scares me just how much faith they have in me,” Ruiz said. “But I go out there and perform well for them.”