Analysis: Jayden Daniels showed off experience in late win for ASU

ASU is 5-1 following the 38-34 win over WSU Saturday

ASU football offensive coordinator Rob Likens knew this moment was coming. 

The 52-year-old Likens had been around football long enough, and had played enough Mike Leach-led teams, to know that this moment was inescapable. 

He didn’t know when it was coming, and he certainly didn’t know how his team would react, but he knew this moment was likely inevitable. 

Coming into ASU’s matchup with the Washington State Cougars, Likens had a healthy hunch his team would be down early. The high-octane Cougar offense was one of the nation’s best, and he knew it would be a tall task for any defense to keep them out of the end zone. So he prepped his unit, urging his team to keep fighting even if they went down early. 

He knew the game could depend on it. 

“There’s going to come a point and a time when you’re going to hear that voice in your head that’s going to say, ‘oh crap’,” Likens remembers telling his team before Saturday’s contest. “We were down 10-0, and they were (getting loud), and then we went three and out. That was that moment. I said 'guys, remember, that’s that moment.' Then we came back and hit that long touchdown and man, I was so proud of those guys for that.” 

The “long touchdown” Likens refers to, a forty-yard connection between freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels and redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, broke open the floodgates for a previously struggling Sun Devil offense. A scoreless first quarter gave way to a 17-point second quarter, punctuated by a 31 yard field goal by redshirt sophomore kicker Cristian Zendejas to tie the game at 17 heading into halftime. 

“I think when you look at the whole team, and the way they reacted and responded from being down early in this football game, they never really panicked,” head coach Herm Edwards said. “Just kind of finding our way and getting our feet underneath us.”

In the second half, Eno Benjamin was the highlight of the Sun Devil offense. The junior running back exploded for 103 of his season-high 137 yards in the second half, providing crucial balance and consistency for an ASU offense that lacked both early on. His stat line becomes more impressive when considering the unique circumstances imposed by Likens. 

“I don’t know if you guys knew this, but we had one run play. That was it. We had one running scheme going into this game because of all of the stuff that they do,” Likens said. “Now, we disguised it a billion different ways, but that’s all we did. I’ve never done that before. I was just a little concerned going in to how that was going to work out but man it worked out good.” 

Benjamin’s play helped set the stage for a fourth quarter that could go down in Sun Devil lore. The period began with Aiyuk hauling in his third touchdown reception of the game, this time on quick strike by Daniels that saw the senior wide receiver break another tackle en route to the end zone. 

Aiyuk’s quickness and after catch abilities gave the Cougar secondary problems all day and helped produce a seven catch, 196 yard, three touchdown performance. 

Up next was a string of crucial stops by a defense that defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales felt improved greatly in the fourth quarter. Their biggest stand came late in the quarter with the score tied at 31 and WSU with possession at the ASU 36 yard line following a poor punt. 

The Cougar offense drove down to the 14 yard line and appeared to be primed to score their fifth touchdown of the day. Instead, a savvy accepted penalty and clutch third down tackle by redshirt freshman safety Cam Phillips limited the Cougars to only three points, setting the stage for the Sun Devil game-winning drive.  

Daniels already has experience dealing with fourth quarter deficits this season. ASU’s 10 play, 75 yard touchdown drive at the end of Saturday’s game was a clinic in two minute offense, and is already Daniels' third game-winning drive of his young career. 

He tore through the WSU defense with accuracy as he marched ASU down the field, finishing the quarter a crisp 9-11 for 108 yards. The drive ended with an acrobatic 17 yard touchdown scramble by Daniels, a fitting end to an electric performance that saw the true freshman throw for 363 yards and three touchdowns. 

“I could tell at around the seven yard line, he’s going for it. I was just like ‘oh gosh, oh gosh’ because I was just waiting (for him) to take a big hit right there,” Likens said. “He smelled blood and he bursted and just took off. That was pure greatness.”

Up next for ASU is a highly-anticipated matchup with the No. 15 Utah Utes. The Sun Devils will look to improve to 3-0 on the road this season, while notching their third straight road victory against a ranked opponent. As the team prepares for the showdown, Gonzales acknowledged the new mentality the team has adopted. 

“I think the biggest thing about this win is we kind of took the other approach. We’ve been talking about don’t listen to all the outside noise," Gonzales said. "It was more this week, if you want to be about it, be about it. Then talk about it. Don’t hide that we’re the 18th ranked team. Go out there and perform like the 18th ranked team. I don’t know if it made a difference but we won, so we’ll keep talking about it.”


Reach the reporter at Jrosenfa@asu.edu or follow @jacobrosenfarb on Twitter. 

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