“It was the most glorious 216 yards of my life.”
The giddy smile that overcame ASU's offensive coordinator Rob Likens' face as the statement left his lips perfectly encapsulated the mood following the Sun Devils' improbable 10-7 victory over the 18th ranked Michigan State Spartans. It was a smile that somehow displayed an incredible amount of disbelief, elation, and most poignantly, pride.
Pride in his true freshman quarterback who executed an 11 play, 75-yard drive late in the fourth quarter to net the Sun Devils their only touchdown of the game.
Pride in an offensive line starting two true freshmen, including a 17-year-old left tackle making his first start, gave up only four sacks to a defense Likens called the best he had ever played against in his time at ASU.
Pride in a running attack against the nation's No. 1 rush defense when it mattered most.
“Our kids did a great job of coming on the road and playing a really, really good football team,” head coach Herm Edwards said. “This is a tough place to play, (but) they never blinked. They just didn't.”
In a game dominated by two stout defensive units, it will likely be the play of freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels that is remembered most fondly. Despite posting relatively pedestrian stats, 15-26 passing for 140 yards and 37 rushing yards, his poise and presence in the pocket kept the Sun Devils competitive throughout Saturday’s contest.
“The kid did good, boy, the kid did good,” Edwards said. “He's going to be a good player one day.”
Daniels engineering of the final Sun Devil drive is the stuff of legends, as he marched ASU from its own 25-yard line all the way to the end zone in just under three minutes to steal victory straight from the jaws of defeat. Whether it was his gorgeous 40-yard throw to the streaking Brandon Aiyuk, his 15-yard scramble on 4th and 13 or his seven-yard run on 3rd and five, Daniels made big play after big play en route to the game-winning Eno Benjamin touchdown.
“On that last drive when I talked to him, I said, ‘Here it is’,” Edwards said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I got us.’ So I said, ‘Ok, let's go.’"
The play of Daniels on that final drive was the clearest possible explanation for why ASU coaches felt so comfortable handing a true freshman the reigns before week one. The composure and confidence that Daniels already possesses is something rarely seen in college football, and his play elicits responses typically reserved for the game’s most elite players.
“(Daniels) is one of those special kids you can build a program around,” defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales said.
Daniels' performance becomes even more impressive when given the proper context. On top of facing Michigan State's vaunted defense, Daniels was playing behind an offensive line that had undergone major reconstruction in the lead-up to Saturday's game.
Unsatisfied with the play of the offensive line in the first two weeks, ASU coaches decided to make a switch, moving senior Cohl Cabral from left tackle back to his natural position of center. This sent freshman Dohnovan West, who started weeks one and two at center, to right guard. Freshman LaDarius Henderson entered the lineup at left tackle.
“We knew that it was going to be an extreme challenge, especially when we were on the right hash because (Henderson) was going to go against one of the best defensive ends in the entire country,” Likens said. “We did everything we could. Slide, double, chip. The normal fan has no idea what we had to do in this game plan to get some passes off.”
Yet, all of the maneuvering and readjusting may not have mattered if it were not for three missed Michigan State field goals, including a potentially game-tying attempt as time expired.
“Now, we were fortunate to get a couple of plays here and there, but in those kinds of games, that's what happens,” Edwards said. “You just go back and forth, and field position is critical. It was interesting, it kind of got down to the kicking game. We're fortunate, we've got a lot of work to do.”
Defensively, the Sun Devils looked strong throughout. They held a Michigan State offense, which came off a 51 point performance in week two, scoreless until the 8:37 mark of the fourth quarter.
All three facets of the defense came together to limit the potent Spartan offense. The linebackers and defensive line were able to generate a consistent pass rush while the secondary kept the big plays to a minimum. Most importantly, the group was able to keep points off the scoreboard, limiting its opponent to just seven points for the third straight week.
“Those kids have given up 21 points in three games,” Edwards said. “I'll say it again, 21 points in college football — that's pretty good in my count.”
Stellar play on both sides of the ball helped contribute to one of the most memorable games in recent Sun Devil history. Likens, who mentioned Saturday’s contest among some of the more stunning upsets he’s ever been a part of, is still searching for the right words to sum it up.
“It was just a great thing to be a part of,” Likens said. “I’m kind of a little emotional. If you just knew what it took to win. I’m still kind of in shock.”