It all just happened at one time.
Even after Saturday night, there still weren’t any clear accounts from either side about what happened in the final play of the fourth quarter when Badgers quarterback Joel Stave kneeled down to set up a field goal down the middle with time expiring.
Did Stave put his knee down? Was it supposed to be called a fumble if he didn’t? Should the clock have kept rolling down or were the officials supposed to stop it momentarily after they whistled off the play?
“We just jumped on it and I guess time ran out so we won,” ASU senior safety Alden Darby said. “I was confused back there.”
There was only one thing that was clear: The scoreboard at Sun Devil Stadium read ASU 32, Wisconsin 30 at :00 in the fourth quarter.
Amid controversy, it was the only thing that was certain on Saturday.
It was a big win for the Sun Devils (2-0) against a Top-25 team, but ASU coach Todd Graham will be among the first to admit that the Sun Devils nearly beat themselves in several instances.
“We just beat the defending Big-10 champion but we made so many mistakes,” Graham said. “We didn’t play very well.”
ASU opened the game with a 13-play, 72-yard drive that came up empty when the Sun Devils failed to get a fourth-down instead of opting for a field goal. After both teams went three-and-out on the next three drives, freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez made a 34-yard field goal to put the Sun Devils up 3-0.
ASU thought it figured out the No. 20 Badgers (2-1) and their heavy rushing attack after Wisconsin had just three rushing yards in the first quarter.
Then more woes happened.
Wisconsin seized its first lead when Stave found senior tight end Jacob Pederson open in the endzone for a 2-yard touchdown pass. Later in the quarter, senior nose guard Beau Allen scooped up ASU junior punter Dom Vizzare’s muffed punt snap in the endzone early in the second quarter.
ASU answered on the next drive with a 1-yard touchdown run from senior running back Marion Grice and a 29-yard field goal from Gonzalez, but the Sun Devils lost their grasp after halftime.
Wisconsin sophomore running back Melvin Gordon ran the ball 80 yards for a touchdown on the Badgers’ first play on offense in the second half to put the Badgers up 21-13.
The Badgers forced ASU to go three-and-out on the next drive. Wisconsin failed to handle ASU’s punt and went into Sun Devil hands, but it ended up being quickly negated when ASU redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly threw an interception on the next play to Badgers senior safety Dezmen Southward.
It also didn’t help throughout the game that sophomore Richard Smith also had four dropped passes in separate drives, killing the ASU offense’s momentum each time.
Then something clicked for the Sun Devils’ stagnant offense.
“We just got to convert on third downs,” Kelly said. “We had a lot of dropped balls. At half time, we made some adjustments and started attacking the run.”
ASU ended up posting nine first downs in the third quarter. The Sun Devils finally scored on Grice’s 1-yard rush with 42 seconds left in the quarter, but couldn’t convert the two-point conversion and still trailed 21-19.
In the following drive that carried on to the fourth quarter, Wisconsin marched 59 yards on six plays but had to settle for a 34-yard field goal after ASU held on in its own territory to extend the lead to 24-19.
From there, the Sun Devils leaned on to their dual threat of Grice and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong.
Strong recorded 63 receiving yards in the fourth quarter and drew drew several defensive pass interference penalties in the second half that boosted ASU’s drives.
Grice scored a 2-yard touchdown run that finally put ASU up 25-24 with 11:40 and ran his final one in for 12 yards to put ASU up 32-24.
Grice finished the game with 84 rushing yards, 50 receiving yards and four rushing touchdowns. Strong had 104 receiving yards in his second game as a Sun Devil.
It still wasn’t over after that point.
With eight minutes left, Wisconsin showed desperation. The Badgers couldn’t convert the first three plays but kept their drive alive when inside linebacker Chris Borland threw a 23 yard pass to Pederson on a fake punt.
Wisconsin advanced and scored on Gordon’s 1-yard run six plays later, but couldn’t convert the two-point conversion and still trailed 32-30.
ASU tried to melt the clock with a six-play drive but was forced to punt with 1:36 left.
Wisconsin started at its own 17-yard line, and a 51-yard pass to redshirt senior wide receiver Jeff Duckworth from Stave put the Badgers into field-goal territory, threatening the Sun Devils with a potential game-winning field goal. The Badgers tried to advance the ball closer and all they had to do was give junior kicker Kyle French a clear angle.
That’s when pandemonium ensued.
Stave knelt with 15 seconds left. The Sun Devils thought Stave’s knee didn’t touch the ground and claimed it was a fumble when he set the ball down. Confusion arose between players, coaches and officials and the referees called the game when the clock expired.
“The quarterback put the ball on the ground while he was still standing up,” Graham said. “He hadn’t been tackled, so that should’ve been ruled a turnover. That should’ve ended the game.”
Wisconsin ended up finishing the game with 231 rushing yards — 193 coming from Gordon. The Badgers hurt the Sun Devils with a lot of jet sweeps and kept the ASU defense guessing throughout most of the game, something that ASU redshirt senior defensive back Oshaon Irabor said was frustrating.
“We had a lot of miscommunications though,” Irabor said. “We have to do a better job of communicating as a defense. That usually happens early in the season – guys are still trying to figure everything out. I think we could’ve played better, if we had communicated better.”
Kelly finished the game 29-for-51 with 352 passing yards.
The win was huge for an ASU program that’s notorious for fading in close games against elite teams. The Sun Devils have little time to move on from Wisconsin, though, as the Sun Devils have a road match at No. 5 Stanford on deck next week.
For now, Graham wants to sit back and take in the victory.
“Our guys found a way to win and I think they were definitely the most physical team on the field,” Graham said. “I was just really proud of how they played and proud to be a Sun Devil.”
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