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ASU Football: Flat defensive showing bailed out by timely stops, key turnovers in win over Washington

A fourth-down stop and a pick-six provided much-needed boosts

Richard Martinez, House of Sparky

In its away tilt against No. 6 USC, Arizona State entered halftime trailing by just four points, before the defense shriveled and the Trojans emphatically snuffed out the Devils’ upset bid.

One week later, ASU returned to their locker room through two quarters with another top-25 team on the ropes, leading No. 21 Washington 24-17. And this time, the Sun Devils would finish it out, securing Shaun Aguano’s first collegiate head coaching win by a final score of 45-38.

So what was different between last week’s late meltdown and this week’s finishing surge?

Certainly, many will give the credit to backup quarterback Trenton Bourguet, who stepped up and led the Sun Devils to victory following an injury to starter Emory Jones in the second quarter. How did a defense that looked pedestrian a week ago, all of a sudden hold firm in the game’s most important moments?

It was by no means a complete flip-of-the-switch for Arizona State’s defenders. Washington came into this game as the No. 12 scoring offense in the country and proved it with a 38-spot on the scoreboard. However, it’s those chances for more that went by the waste side, thanks to some spotlight plays.

Serving as tune-ups to the stops that would define the game, the Sun Devils showed defensive urgency early, holding Washington at the goal-line in the second quarter and subsequent empty drives following their opening series score. Washington’s up-tempo game had Arizona State off balance early, and an impact stop was still yet to be seen. But with Nesta Jade Silvera and Jordan Clark on the field, that wouldn’t last long.

As SIlvera put it postgame, “big time players make big time plays.” That was certainly the case in the second quarter for Silvera and safety Jordan Clark. With ASU having just taken their first lead in nearly a month on an X Valladay touchdown run midway through the second quarter, the defense needed to stand tall and give their offense a cushion.

Silvera and Clark did their part in that, with Silvera deflecting a Michael Penix pass high in the air, which floated just long enough for Clark to secure and stash to the house for Arizona State’s first defensive touchdown of the season.

“When the ball went in the air, I just thought “Oh, my, God,” said Clark about the play. “Just tried to make sure I secured the catch and once I caught it in stride, I knew nobody was going to catch me.”

“When you get a defensive play like that, it puts you over the top,” added Aguano.

With the 24-10 lead late in the half and the now eight-game interception streak, there was a growing confidence among the unit. While Penix and the high-powered Huskies offense would get the ball back and trim the deficit to 24-17 before half, the seeds of trust and confidence had been planted in Donnie Henderson’s group.

“The key word today was trust,” said freshman defensive back Isaiah Johnson. “Trust the guy behind you, trust the guy in front of you. That mentality today was the best approach we could have had.”

That approach took some steps back in the second half though. The Huskies came out of the locker room with a purpose, scoring on three consecutive drives between the third and fourth quarters to tie the game at 38 with 12 minutes to play in regulation. Facing down the possibility of falling behind, the Sun Devils defense was not fazed. And after Trenton Bourguet and company marched down the field to get the lead back, there was no breaking the Sun Devil wall.

On 4th and 9 with 3:51 on the clock, ASU’s coverage denied Penix any open men, forcing a contested ball that hit the ground for the defense’s second turnover-on-downs forced of the day.

The stops came when it mattered most.

When Washington got the ball back deep in their own territory with under three minutes in the fourth, B.J. Green put his name to the game with a 10-yard sack to back the Huskies up inside their own 3-yard-line.

After a first down, Washington found themselves nearing the red zone, before a bad snap on third down sent them all the way back to their own 31. Serving as an omen of what was to come, Penix’s desperation heave at the buzzer was swatted to the ground by Clark, clinching the Sun Devils first ranked win this season.

Having struggled on defense most of the year and considering the circumstances of the Sun Devils’ season thus far, tenacity and urgency expectedly took a ding in their last few games. However, they stepped up when it mattered most on Saturday, as they upended the No. 21 team in the country. Having finally settled down from all of this season’s hooplah, Nesta Jade Silvera cited Coach Aguano as a big reason to the fire and passion that Arizona State’s players had on the field on Saturday.

“I could play for him any day of the week, because that’s a dude who’s gonna make his players know that he appreciates them,” said Silvera postgame. “It’s a mutual respect with him. And for that, I really love that dude.”

The team will certainly love heading into their bye week before a trip to Stanford and a matchup with another dynamic quarterback in Tanner McKee awaiting on October 22. But for now, as Kyle Soelle put it, “It feels great with a bye week for everybody to rest up.”