Many overlooked this week’s matchup for ASU as a potential trap. The Bruins after all were 2-7 and were among the bottom three teams in the conference in offense, defense and special teams.
Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards wasn’t among that contingent, he didn’t sleep all week in preparation of senior day and salute to service.
“I told them this week this will be the hardest game they play all year, and it turned out to be that,” Edwards said. “To their credit through the peaks and valleys of this game, they withstood it and kept their poise.”
ASU has now won three straight contests and remain very much alive in the Pac-12 South hunt.
The Sun Devils game out of the gates slow, as they settled for a field goal on their opening drive, then allowed UCLA to march into the end zone on their opening drive.
The Bruins were able to dominate the clock because they were highly effective on third down. UCLA converted on 5-of-7 on third downs in the first half, with a majority of them going for big plays.
UCLA graduate transfer quarterback Wilton Speight was tearing up the Sun Devil defense throughout on Saturday as he went 26-for-35 with 335 yards two touchdowns and one interception. Redshirt junior tight end Caleb Wilson was his star target all game catching 11 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
Then the Sun Devil defense made a play.
The Bruins were set up with a 4th and 1 at the ASU 15-yard line, they decided to go for it rather than attempt a field goal. ASU freshman linebacker Darien Butler got into UCLA’s backfield and wrapped up redshirt junior running back Joshua Kelley behind the line of scrimmage.
Momentum was stalled and the Sun Devils avoided disaster.
ASU marched down the field for their first touchdown of the afternoon capped off by a 13-yard run on a keeper from senior quarterback Manny Wilkins.
Following a missed field goal from UCLA’s junior kicker JJ Molson, the Sun Devils regained possession feeling better about their prospects.
Then a mistake from Wilkins was costly.
Wilkins tried to find Harry but ended up throwing into the hands of sophomore cornerback Darnay Holmes for a 31 yard pick-six.
Arizona State was letting UCLA hang around.
Redshirt junior fullback Nick Ralston snuck out into the flat wide open as a Wilkins pass hit him in the chest for an easy touchdown and a 17-14 lead.
The biggest blow of the game for ASU wasn’t when junior Cohl Cabral missed time due to an injury or when redshirt senior Jalen Harvey missed time with an injury.
Standout freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson was called for targeting in the third quarter as he delivered a hit on Speight. Robertson was disqualified for the remainder of the game and will be ineligible for the first half against Oregon next week.
Throw in another opportunity to overcome adversity, ASU answered the bell.
Junior cornerback Chase Lucas intercepted a pass from Speight as the Bruins were driving into ASU territory saving ASU’s bacon in the process.
A great drive spearheaded by the rushing attack ended with a one-yard touchdown run from Eno Benjamin on fourth and goal. Benjamin finished Saturday with 34 carries for 182 yards and one touchdown, as the Sun Devils ran the ball 59 times compared to only 22 pass attempts.
“It’s amazing in this world, I know everyone wants to see high scorers and the ball thrown all over the yard,” Edwards said. “But if you run the ball with consistency you have a chance to have yourself a pretty good football team.”
UCLA was able to regain possession with 1:33 remaining on the game clock no timeouts trailing by three points. After moving the ball down the field a little bit ASU received a boost from one of their young stars.
Freshman linebacker Tyler Johnson recorded his second sack of the night on Speight and knocked the ball loose though it was recovered by the Bruins. It took a lot of time off the clock, and two false start penalties took 22 ticks down as well.
Speight’s final heave then fell incomplete.
“The previous plays before that I wasn’t in the right spots,” Johnson said. “Coach made the next call and I just kept going and going and I came free.”
Lost in ASU’s offense was the final home game of Wilkins’ ASU career. The senior was very emotional about his time in Tempe, and the lasting memories he’s made in maroon and gold.
He struggled to get words out, but he’s hoping that he has at least four more games left with a pitchfork on his helmet.
“I’m blessed to apart of this football team, it means the world to me,” Wilkins said.
The Sun Devils now prepare for a trip to Eugene to play the Oregon Ducks. ASU only has one win away outside of Tempe this season, and they have to prove they can win in a difficult environment.
“They have a good fanbase they’ll be excited about playing us,” Edwards said. “We have to go on the road and win two road games, we haven’t done that yet we only have one win on the road.”