PASADENA, Calif. — When the clock read 0:00 at Rose Bowl Stadium on Saturday night, No. 17 ASU football let out every single feeling of redemption and gratification the Sun Devils had built inside of them.
The players embraced each other on the UCLA logo at midfield before moving their celebration to the northwest side of the stadium to share the moment with their fans. With chants of “A-S-U” echoing through the Rose Bowl, the players hugged fans and cheered along with them.
It was a monumental victory for the Sun Devils. ASU defeated No. 14 UCLA 38-33 and clinched its first ever Pac-12 South title.
ASU coach Todd Graham isn’t a crier, but he admitted the moment got the best of him.
“I had tears running down my face,” Graham said. “It’s not just winning the Pac-12 South Championship because that’s not what we set out to win the Pac-12 Championship, it’s watching these kids on that field lay it on the line with that kind of heart was just overwhelming to me.”
Even though it’s not the ultimate goal, it was a still huge objective of what ASU (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12) was working toward since after last season ended.
ASU is infamous for building up hype only to break down and disappoint. Thoughts of that flashed when UCLA (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) rallied in the second half and threatened the Sun Devils of their hopes to win the game and everything else it stands for.
It didn’t happen.
Gone was the shadow over ASU that it wasn’t able to win on the road in big games. Gone was the burden of losing to the Bruins for the last two years and giving up the division title to them for the third time in a row. Gone was the fear of the Sun Devils making their signature disappointment.
“That’s the different part of our team this year,” said ASU redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly. “Once things hit adversity, guys come in and believe in one another. Our coaches do a good job of keeping adverse situations in practice. It prepares for us for these games.”
The Sun Devils started the game moving the 76 yards for seven plays on their first drive that ended with Kelly’s 3-yard touchdown run.
It didn’t take long for UCLA to respond. After the Bruins had a long return on the ensuing kickoff, UCLA redshirt sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley hit redshirt sophomore Devin Lucien for a 42-yard touchdown.
It took awhile for both teams to get going in the first quarter after that three-minute sequence, until UCLA sophomore kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn converted a 48-yard field goal to give the Bruins a 10-7 advantage with 3:30 left in the first quarter.
Then ASU found its groove and went to work for the rest of the first half.
Sun Devil sophomore running back D.J. Foster had a 3-yard touchdown run to give the lead back to ASU. On UCLA’s first play on the next drive, ASU redshirt junior linebacker Carl Bradford jumped Hundley’s swing pass and took the pick-six for 18 yards. To end a 13-play, 69-yard drive that lasted 5:28, ASU redshirt sophomore quarterback Michael Eubank had a 1-yard touchdown off a quarterback sneak. That gave ASU a 28-10 lead.
Fairbairn hit a 23-yard field goal to bring UCLA’s deficit down to 15 points with 47 seconds left in the half. The Sun Devils used nearly all the time it had left, and Kelly found redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong on a back-shoulder fade for a 19-yard touchdown with five seconds half.
ASU went into the locker room with a 35-13 lead, but the game was far from over.
“(We just) had to play what we do, keep going out there, keep the tempo up, guys don’t let up,” Kelly said.
UCLA came back out of the half surging. The Bruins started the third quarter with a 10-play, 79-yard drive that ended with freshman linebacker Myles Jack’s 3-yard rush.
UCLA then forced ASU to punt. After an illegal substitution penalty nullified the Bruins’ long punt return, ASU redshirt junior kicker Alex Garoutte lost the ball on a bad snap. The Bruins recovered on the Sun Devils’ 20-yard line and capped off the drive with redshirt freshman running back Paul Perkins’ 1-yard touchdown run.
Just like that, UCLA trailed by a mere possession, 35-27.
ASU used another long drive that lasted 14 plays and 65 yards that led to freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez’s 28-yard field goal. But it wasn’t enough to stop the Bruins’ momentum.
Hundley then threw a 27-yard pass to redshirt senior wide receiver Shaquelle Evans. The Bruins tried to go for two to cut the deficit to three points, but ASU senior safety Alden Darby intercepted Hundley’s pass to leave the game at 38-33 with 4:42 left.
All ASU could do on its next two possession was punt. The Sun Devils just needed to hold on.
“(Redshirt senior defensive back Osahon) Irabor has been unbelievable and said, ‘Guys, we’re ahead five points. This ain’t happening. We’re winning and keep doing what you’re coached to do,’” Graham said.
The Bruins marched down the field on a 10-play, 63-yard drive, but Fairbairn missed a 37-yard field goal with 4:38 left. UCLA got the ball back with 3:21 left for a final drive. Hundley got two first downs on the drive, but two penalties prevented the Bruins from advancing the field.
On fourth-and-35, Hundley threw a pass to sophomore wide receiver Jordan Payton, who was stopped 19-yards short by ASU senior linebacker Chris Young, which sealed the win for the Sun Devils.
“The biggest win we had to win the Pac-12 South Championship since I’ve been here,” Graham said. “Not another win in my career that I can tell you that means as much as to be on that one.”
Graham credited ASU’s ability to win to its conditioning.
“Shawn Griswold is the finest strength coach in the country,” Graham said. “What you witnessed is training.”
ASU had a balanced game offensively, racking up 223 rushing yards and 225 passing yards. The Sun Devils had just 91 yards of total offense in the second half, however.
“We just couldn’t complete a couple third downs in that aspect,” Kelly said. “UCLA has a great coaching staff and they made some great adjustments at halftime. If could put a couple in on those third downs, it would have been a different game.”
UCLA had 404 yards of total offense with 268 of them coming in the second half. Graham admitted the Sun Devils had trouble containing Hundley through out the game.
“We sacked him nine times and heck we had him, but I don’t know how many times he got out,” Graham said.
With UA upsetting No. 5 Oregon earlier in the day, the Sun Devils are slated to face Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game. The only question is where would the game be played, as ASU controls its own destiny to host the Pac-12 Championship game in Tempe.
And the Sun Devils’ biggest rival, the Wildcats, stand in their way for the Territorial Cup game on Nov. 30.
“We’ve visualized what would it be like to come out there at Sun Devil Stadium and host the Pac-12 Championship,” Graham said. “The most important game of the year is next week. It don’t matter what we’ve done to this point. We lose this one, unsuccessful season.”
But for now, the Sun Devils and their fans have finally something to celebrate this late in the season, a change of direction for the ASU football program.
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