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ASU Football: Special Teams Propel Path to Upset

The game wasn’t just won in the waning seconds.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Three ticks remained on the clock. ASU head coach Herm Edwards had one of the best kickers in the nation in his back pocket, Michigan State knew the result was decided before lining up to try and stop a train that had already left the station.

Arizona State won on a scorching Saturday night against the No. 15 Michigan State Spartans. The win means a lot to Sun Devils past and present, Tempe remains a place of nightmares for Midwest teams that pretend they can handle the heat.

The cool confidence of sophomore kicker Brandon Ruiz made the decision to take three knees so easy. A 16-13 upset seemed unthinkable when ASU trailed 13-3 with 1:27 left in the third quarter. The offense was completely contained by a Michigan State unit that is one of the most fearsome in the nation.

The scoreboard didn’t look anything like a typical college football tilt. The offenses weren’t lighting up the scoreboard and the battle was primarily decided in the trenches.

“This was an old-time pro football game. This wasn’t a college game,” said Edwards. “College games normally get up into the 40s and 50s. This was just a rock ‘em sock ‘em game. It was comfortable for me. I’m used to being in games like this.”

Danny Gonzales’ squad matched them most of the night, but a young inexperienced unit can only hold a team as experienced and talented as MSU for so long.

The real heroes of the night were the Sun Devil special teams. ASU was able to win the field position battle throughout Saturday’s contest, because of the way the unit operated.

Redshirt junior Michael Sleep-Dalton punted five times on Saturday night and averaged 43.4 yards per boot. He twice pinned the Spartans inside their own one-yard line, and helped the Sun Devils win the field position battle all evening.

The Sun Devils also came through with a big punt block in the second half when the elements may have begun starting to affect Michigan State. Redshirt freshman Tyler Johnson came from the left side and blocked redshirt senior Jake Hartbarger’s punt setting ASU up on their own 43-yard line.

This play allowed the Sun Devils to begin the comeback attempt as Ruiz easily connected for a 24-yard field goal reducing the deficit to one score. The clock kept getting later and later, and the Sun Devil Stadium crowed grew more rowdy with every Sun Devil big play.

Winning games at home is crucial in all sports. In a sport like college football when season’s can collapse on the results of isolated 60-minute performances? The importance of taking care of your business at home is that much more crucial.

Edwards felt really comfortable with the ball in his senior signal caller’s hands and little time left on the clock.

“It just felt like whoever had the ball at the end had a very good chance to win,” said Edwards.

ASU is 2-0 at Sun Devil Stadium, and two tests on the road await them. One with possibility to get revenge from the previous year, and another where the opponent will want redemption from a season-crushing loss.

There’s a chance ASU finds themselves among the AP’s top 25 teams before heading to San Diego State. Riding high off of this victory could lead to a hangover by the coast. It will be important that the team remains focused through the success.

Wilkins is a fan of avoiding complacency under all circumstances. Edwards will rely on his senior to make sure the Sun Devils avoid that.

If the Sun Devils are to continue their early success as the weather slowly cools down, the special teams unit will serve a vital role.

They won’t receive most of the acclaim after wins, but for the Sun Devils to have them be an underrated success story could lead to real acclaim once the season is finished.