PASADENA, Calif. — Three-hundred sixty-four days ago, Mike Bercovici lay on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum field, exasperated. He had just thrown one of the most memorable passes in ASU history and led the football team to a bounce-back win over then-No. 16 USC.
Since, Bercovici's quarterbacking has been far more tumultuous. Yes, more tumultuous than a last-second Hail Mary on the heels of a sometimes messy, back-and-forth affair. His passes were pristine 364 days ago. They've seemed to get less-so day-by-day since.
It reached the point — after a performance in which he completed just over half his passes and turned the ball over twice in a 28-point loss — that 10 of the first 15 plays Saturday against UCLA were runs. To add just a slight element of surprise, the Sun Devils mixed in four screen passes. The remaining play was Nick Kelly's botched snap, which Bercovici covered up for an 11-yard loss.
But, somewhere in the process of leading the Sun Devils to a 38-23 win over the No. 7 Bruins, the redshirt senior quarterback figured it out.
Rather than throw a struggling Bercovici into the fire, ASU's offensive gameplan was to establish the run and let the passing game arrive when it does. The Sun Devils rushed for 192 yards. Bercovici would eventually throw for 272. But a large majority of those in the first half came on runs-after-catches on screen passes or dump-offs.
"You can't say enough about what our running backs did," Bercovici said.
But on a two-minute drill near the end of the first half, which eventually led to a Zane Gonzalez field goal, Bercovici was finally allowed to let loose. Like in the previous four games, he lacked touch on many of his longer passes. He missed some receivers. But, in the name of clock conservation, Bercovici was forced to test and trust his arm again.
The Los Angeles native took that confidence and excelled in the second half. He quarterbacked drives that led to 23 points and looked smooth doing it. No longer were his passes of the dink and dunk variety. They were bullets, threading the occasional needle.
The momentum that overtook Bercovici and the ASU offense is something the program needs to embrace as a whole. It's at a crucial point in the season. Two losses doesn't eliminate anyone from anything. The way they lost seemed to indicate future failure, but the Sun Devils said not so fast Saturday night.
Against a UCLA team that was, by all accounts, no slouch, the Sun Devils often looked to be the far superior team on the fresh Rose Bowl grass. Like Bercovici, they now have the chance to turn that into real progress.
"It's momentum," Bercovici said. "It's what this program needed."
Up next is an easier foe than what ASU just faced. At Sun Devil Stadium, ASU can attempt to repeat the winning streak that came after the 62-27 loss it suffered at the hands of the Bruins last season. The Colorado Buffaloes, who have finished last in the Pac-12 South each year since they joined the conference, come to Tempe on Oct. 10.
In 2014, after ASU got its win at an L.A. school, it reeled off wins against Stanford, Washington, Utah and Notre Dame. To rebound with the same success this season, those wins will have to come against Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Washington State — arguably an easier road ahead.
Coach Todd Graham's teams are now 7-1 the week following a 28-point loss. Last season, they were able to turn the bounce back win into a season-defining winning streak. What's their secret?
"We played pissed tonight," he said. "Maybe we need to play pissed more often."
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