No. 17 Arizona State could have turned into the same old Sun Devils in the second half of its Pac-12 South-clinching, 38-33 defeat of No. 14 UCLA Saturday. The program known recently more for late-season meltdowns than championship contention exorcised its past demons.
These are anything but the same old Sun Devils, and Saturday proved it.
When he arrived from Pittsburgh in December 2011, head coach Todd Graham hardly inherited an empty cupboard. His roster is heavy on upperclassmen, many of whom were recruited by his predecessor, Dennis Erickson. Arizona State was never lacking for talent but needed someone to give it direction.
Graham's done exactly that.
"I've been doing this for 28 years, and this was the most impressive display of heart by a football team I've ever seen," Graham said in his postgame press conference, per ASUDevils.com.
A second-half team much of the year, UCLA made defensive adjustments to contain Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's unit. The varied looks in the spread that produced 35 first-half points were neutralized by linebacker Anthony Barr, cornerback Ishmael Adams and other Bruins containing the explosive perimeter plays vital to the offense.
The Sun Devils' inability to score put the onus firmly on the defense, and the group responded resoundingly behind defensive tackle Will Sutton, the unit's senior leader.
Sutton is the biggest—literally and figuratively—example of Arizona State's buy-in to Graham's philosophy. The head coach said Sutton took charge in the locker room at halftime, rallying his teammates to finish the job they started in the first 30 minutes.
And the Sun Devils needed every little bit.
With UCLA rallying behind sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley to outscore the Sun Devils 20-3 in the second half, the Arizona State defense rose up when it counted most. Two stands snuffed out the Bruins' comeback effort.
On the first such drive, UCLA drove to the Arizona State 6-yard line needing a touchdown to take the lead. Hundley was in the midst of one of the best halves any quarterback has played this season, dissecting the Sun Devils defense with a peppering of passes and elusive rushes.
But in the red zone, the Bruins were stymied, including on linebacker Chris Young's third-down sack of Hundley that pushed UCLA back to the 20-yard line. The 13-yard loss contributed to UCLA kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn's missed field-goal attempt.
Arizona State defenders got to Hundley nine times, which, as Los Angeles Daily News reporter Jack Wang noted on Twitter, was a season-high. The Sun Devils successfully exploited their mismatch up front, overwhelming UCLA's inexperienced offensive line.
Of course, experience means nothing without the ability and opportunity to make the plays. Arizona State's defenders had both.
"What you witnessed is training, and it isn't easy," Graham said. "Guys could hardly stand up at the end of that game."
Young struck for another sack to start the final UCLA drive, and defensive end Davon Coleman added another to put the Bruins in an impossibly long 4th-and-35.
One of the attitudes Graham was tasked with adjusting was Arizona State's discipline. The Sun Devils led the Football Bowl Subdivision in penalties in 2009 and 2011. The 104 flags Arizona State incurred in 2011 became indicative of a season filled with promise that imploded down the stretch.
In a fitting twist, penalties helped Arizona State score its marquee victory. UCLA came into Saturday's matchup the nation's fourth-most penalized team. Arizona State was the fourth least.
UCLA was hit with two consecutive holding penalties on its final possession.
To come on the road and win this here today [is] a big, big deal for our program. To clinch the Pac-12 South championship, [it's] really, really gratifying to walk into that [locker] room and look those seniors in the eye. It's been a quick journey the last two years, and I'm just really, really proud of them for buying into what we're doing.