Robert Nelson doesn’t smile.
After the ASU senior cornerback picked off OSU junior quarterback Sean Mannion and returned it to the house, giving the Sun Devils (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12) a commanding 30-10 lead with 5:08 remaining in the game, Nelson ran over to the sideline showing no emotion.
“At that moment, I didn’t really have a feeling,” Nelson said. “Not until the game was over. It’s just the mentality I have to move to the next play, finish the game and celebrate later. That’s how I’ve always been. A lot of guys ask why I don’t smile and it’s because the game isn’t over.”
Nelson’s second pick of the night sealed the Sun Devils’ 30-17 victory over the Beavers (6-4, 4-3) and sets up a showdown for the Pac-12 South title next week against UCLA.
The Sun Devils wouldn’t have been in that position without the business-like attitude and performance from Nelson, though.
The offense struggled again, unable to score a touchdown in the second half, but Nelson was there at every turn to keep the Sun Devils on top.
He intercepted Mannion for the first time on fourth down in the first quarter, soaring high to grab the ball and the momentum after Sun Devils redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly threw an interception on the previous drive.
Nelson again lifted the Sun Devils in the second quarter, recovering a muffed punt off the hands of Beavers’ star junior wide receiver Brandin Cooks, which directly led to a Sun Devils touchdown and a 20-0 lead.
The Beavers pushed back, closing the gap to 23-10 in the fourth quarter, but Nelson had one more trick up his sleeve.
The pick-six was Nelson’s sixth interception of the season, the most by a Sun Devil since Justin Tryon in 2007.
Like any good business man, Nelson gave all the credit to the defense, which intercepted Mannion four times on the night.
“I want to give credit to the d-line and everybody else on the defense,” Nelson said. “We were just in one of our coverages, I read the quarterback and broke on the ball. It was a great play but the credit goes to my team.”
Coach Todd Graham was impressed by Nelson’s performance, especially the interception return, and said Nelson was the difference maker in the Sun Devils’ sixth consecutive conference victory.
“I think that was probably Robert’s best game,” Graham said. “He’s been clutch for us. When he sees the ball come out of the quarterback’s hand, he is really gifted, so it’s our job to put him in positions so he can do that … so I thought he was the MVP and he did phenomenal.”
Beyond impressed, Graham said he was “really proud” of Nelson and called him one of his “favorite guys” on the team, citing the big fourth quarter interception against Utah last week to help seal that Sun Devils victory.
“He made a big time play last week and a big time play tonight and that’s what great players do,” Graham said.
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