If you’ve been paying attention to Arizona State football since the start of training camp this season, you’ve heard about the sky high potential of this team. On a warm night in Pasadena on Saturday, that potential was displayed in full.
The Sun Devils ran wild at the Rose Bowl in a 42-23 convincing victory over host UCLA. ASU gained 458 yards in the game, and didn’t allow a single point in the second half. They’re 4-1, and oh boy are they scary when they put it all together.
“We hit some big explosive plays in the pass game, and Jayden got real comfortable,” head coach Herm Edwards said. “Any time you can win a road game against a Pac-12 opponent, that’s good stuff. It’s hard man, this conference is hard, it just is. We’re fortunate so far, we’ve won two.”
The pregame festivities and pyrotechnics were plenty at the iconic venue, but the ireworks didn’t translate to the playing field early, with both offenses looking sluggish out of the gate. UCLA pieced together a solid drive on its opening possession, but stalled with a field goal. ASU evened the score after failing to get into the end zone despite multiple tries inside the five yard line.
In the second quarter, both the Arizona State and UCLA offenses were jump-started. Set up on the ASU 3-yard-line with a third-and-goal, the Bruins opened the second period with a quick touchdown. The score seemed to be contagious, as it ignited a series of touchdown drives for both teams. After just six total points were tallied in the opening quarter, a whopping 41 were put up in the second.
“We knew all week we had mismatches,” quarterback Jayden Daniels said. “We just took advantage of what they were giving us. We played a clean football game and just executed. Me and the receivers were on the same page, and it was a clean football game.”
The star of the show in the first half? Ricky Pearsall. Jayden Daniels’ favorite target notched two 50+ yard touchdowns in the second quarter, scoring on a screen pass from 65 yards out before Daniels hit him in stride on a deep ball for a 54 yard score on the ensuing possession. On both, the Tempe native seemed to look around in disbelief, seeing that the nearest powder-blue clad defender was closer to UCLA’s campus in Westwood than the Arizona State ball carrier.
“It was about going out there and getting the nerves off in the first quarter, and then locking it back in,” Pearsall said. “The leaders stepped up and were vocal about it. We emphasize (being explosive) everyday in practice, we just went out there and did what we do in practice and executed. We’re never satisfied as an offense, this was just a glimpse of what we can do.”
It wouldn’t be an ASU football game without at least a few head-scratching plays in which the Sun Devils shoot themselves in the foot. This week’s featured guest; DJ Taylor. The usually electrifying return man had a brutal first half. If the two kicks fielded at the back of the end zone and returned for minimal yardage weren’t enough for Herm Edwards to make a switch, the final play of the first half definitely was.
With just 14 seconds on the clock, and UCLA punting it back to ASU, the Sun Devils would be content to kneel on the ball and take a 24-20 advantage into the half. Instead, disaster struck as Taylor attempted to field the rolling punt and muffed it. The Bruins recovered and kicked a field goal as time expired. In the second half, LV Bunkley-Shelton was back deep as the ASU return man.
“We know how to put ourselves in a deficit at times, we figured that out,” Edwards said. “They were big ones, those three points before the half. A young player wanted to make a play. That’s the learning moments you gotta teach guys. I thought our team was resilient tonight.”
As much as the offense stole the limelight in the first half, the defense punctuated the dominant win by pitching a shutout in the second. A potent UCLA run game was stifled, and the ASU secondary that looked shaky early on became clean as a whistle down the stretch. Darien Butler, the captain of the Sun Devil defense, wasn’t surprised by the airtight performance his unit put on.
“Bend don’t break defense,” Butler said. “This defense, it doesn’t matter what you put in front of us, we won’t break. That’s not what we’re about, we’re all about getting the job done.”
Arizona State’s defense came up big early in the fourth quarter. With UCLA threatening inside the ASU 10-yard-line, Jordan Clark stuffed Bruin quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson on an outside zone keeper. Down nine points, head coach Chip Kelly gambled. Freshman linebacker Eric Gentry made him wish he hadn’t. The 6-foot-5 inexperienced defender contained Thompson-Robinson on another keeper, and brought him down well short of the line to gain. The Sun Devil sideline erupted at what aged to be the game’s biggest play on the defensive side of the ball.
“He’s a unique player, he really is,” Edwards said of Gentry. “He’s incredibly tough, we do have to put some weight on him though.”
“Obviously we were better in the second half as far as points on the board which is most important,” defensive coordinator Antionio Pierce chuckled. “It was a very difficult challenge facing DTR, but I give our guys credit. A lot of young guys stepped up and did a hell of a job. I’m just proud of them, they did a hell of a job.”
Arizona State now sits at 4-1, and 2-0 in conference. In the wide open Pac-12 south, it seems that if the Sun Devils can play at or near the level they played tonight, they should be representing the division in Las Vegas come championship Saturday in December. Like many good teams, however, ASU won’t look ahead further than the game in front of them. When asked what this win means going forward for his team, Pierce didn’t waste his breath.
“4-1, thank you.”