Freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels had been brought to the ground, and the ball came with him. For the second week in a row, he had committed a turnover in the fourth quarter.
However, instead of last week’s end result, the rookie flipped the script. It was familiar territory for him. His defense held No. 15 Cal (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) to three, and instead of a bitter fourth quarter defeat, the Sun Devils (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) came right back down the field to seal a 24-17 victory against another ranked opponent on the road.
“He’s so young and I immediately got on the phone with him and I talked to him, and I said, ‘Look man, we still got 11 minutes left,’” said offensive coordinator Rob Likens of talking with Daniels after his turnover. “He goes, ‘Oh, I know coach. We got it. The sideline is all good.’”
Sure enough, he had it. Daniels orchestrated another seamless 15-play, 75-yard, 6:09 scoring drive that was capped off by junior running back Eno Benjamin on a three-yard rush into the end zone.
“It was just moving the chains and eating up the clock...We knew that was the drive to go down and score,” Daniels said. “We did it, then the defense came on and got us the ball back.”
With two missed field goals, one fourth quarter turnover, a bundle of injuries, and a defense that had gotten humbled a week prior, and was tested again, ASU still found a way to come through. Saturday was an entire team effort, and Daniels’ last drive was just one example of the resiliency of a young team.
“This is a resilient bunch, man. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, they just find a way to keep themselves in a football game,” said head coach Herm Edwards. “If you do that, you got a chance. Football is about having opportunities...The offense went down and took the lead, and the defense shut them out. That’s a credit to those guys and the coaches.”
Aside from Daniels’ bounce back, another unit that was tested was the defense as a whole. 12 runs, no passes, one touchdown. That was what they were dealt in the third quarter when Cal redshirt junior backup quarterback Devon Modster didn’t even have to throw a pass on a touchdown drive.
The defense was on its heels, and the Golden Bears had ran the ball down their throats.
“I believe if you play hard and you play fast, and you give them a chance, they’ll make plays,” said defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales. “They got told how soft they were after that first drive (of the second half), and maybe not in the nicest way. They responded, so that was good.”
The defense held Cal to three points after Daniels’ turnover, and then they made two fourth down stops over the course of the last three minutes of the game to put the nail in the coffin.
Of course, Cal’s quarterback situation helped as well. After redshirt sophomore quarterback Chase Garbers left the game late in the first half with an injury, the defense faced redshirt junior playcaller Devon Modster.
Minus the failed first drive of the second half, the defensive unit forced Modster to throw by stopping the run and playing man coverage in the secondary.
“We came up with tighter coverage and more man-to man,” Edwards said. “It’s kind of interesting. You sit there and you know what they are doing. I told Danny, ‘Just do it. If they beat us throwing the ball, then that quarterback deserves a win.’ We got to put our best guys on their best guys and don’t let them breathe.”
It paid off, and ASU prevailed on a night with a few untimely health problems. Redshirt freshman safety Cam Phillips was already out due to injury, and senior cornerback Kobe Williams had a migraine that left him out.
Redshirt junior defensive back Jack Jones and freshman safety Willie Harts were called into action. However, the biggest standout in the secondary was sophomore safety Aashari Crosswell, who intercepted Modster at the end of the first half, and who seemed to be all over the field in all of Cal’s waning drives.
For the second-year veteran in Gonzales’ scheme, it was a matter of getting the team’s identity back.
“We weren’t us in the Colorado game,” Crosswell said. “We just had to do us, and I felt like that’s what we did this game.”
Along with Crosswell’s performance, Benjamin had all three Sun Devil touchdowns, including the game-winning score and a bulldozing push toward the goal line on the first score of the evening.
He had 29 carries for 100 yards, certainly proving that it was tough sledding. However, Benjamin just kept on grinding away, and he would prevail to cap off every drive.
“I think last week, we attempted too many field goals,” Benjamin said. “I think this year, we knew it was an issue that we needed to score points...In my head, I was thinking touchdown, touchdown. The offensive line did a really good job up front. Specifically on the first one, I saw it from the go and I told Jayden, ‘This is the one. I want the ball.’ The offensive line did a good job and we ended up in the end zone.”
After a bad after taste last week, ASU managed to pull through with a nice road win against the Golden Bears. The Devils had the benefit of facing a one-dimensional offense in the second half with the loss of Garbers, but regardless, a win against a top-25 opponent counts any way you look at it.
But to Edwards’ young core, they don’t even realize the significance of their wins. They are just playing ball. The implications haven’t hit them, and they are just looking to move forward into the bye week and beyond.
“We had nothing to lose. Are you kidding me? We are playing the 15th-ranked team on the road? You can’t be afraid to win,” Edwards said. “You got nothing to lose. The pressure is on them, not us...There’s still a lot of learning with this football team, and we got to get better.”