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ASU football avenges past loss, snaps skid in Saturday's thriller in Tempe

Last season's close loss to Oregon stuck with ASU in the lead up to Saturday's matchup

ASU Football vs Oregon-5.jpg

ASU senior wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (2) runs down the field for a touchdown in the Sun Devil's 31-28 victory over the Oregon Ducks on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.

For redshirt junior wide receiver Frank Darby, “Stupid Swole” is more than just a nickname. 

It’s a moniker that uniquely encapsulates what makes the Jersey City native one of the loudest and well-respected players in the ASU locker room.

He has an imposing build, forged through months of dedicated off-season training. Training, Darby reports, that was primarily motivated by one particularly painful loss. 

The loss, a 31-29 defeat to the Oregon Ducks last season, eliminated ASU’s chances of a Pac-12 title berth and loomed large on Darby after a controversial out of bounds call negated what would’ve been the tying two-point conversion catch.

It was a defeat Darby vowed to avenge, and when the sixth ranked Ducks rolled into Tempe on Saturday, it was a moment Darby knew he could not squander. 

“From the beginning of this season, I couldn’t wait to play them,” Darby said following ASU’s 31-28 upset win over Oregon in which he caught four passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. 

“I’ve been training for them since the offseason … I knew we were going to run into them again, and when (Oregon quarterback Justin) Herbert came back, I was like it’s going to be a game. I’m just happy we finally did it.”

Darby was far from the only Sun Devil to vanquish demons Saturday night, as offensive coordinator Rob Likens entered ASU’s matchup similarly obsessed with taking down the Ducks. 

He gave his players one homework assignment this past summer: watch last season’s two-point loss to Oregon and report back everything ASU had done wrong. The assignment, Likens promised, would be dual-pronged in its approach, as it forced his players to evaluate possible weaknesses while keeping the painful memory at the forefront of their minds. 

The project was successful on both fronts, as Likens made substantial changes to the three practices leading up to Saturday’s game based on players' observations of poor practices ahead of last year’s matchup. 

“The guys were excited to play,” Likens said. “We talked about all week that last year, we felt like, offensively, we laid a little egg up there last year … That’s been on their minds all season.”

Despite still attending high school at the time of ASU’s heartbreaking loss in Oregon last season, freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels played with an inspired ferocity Saturday. 

He threw for three touchdowns and a career-high 408 yards, due in large part to a number of downfield connections to both Darby and senior wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who tore through the Ducks defense to the tune of seven catches for 161 yards and a score.

“We knew that (Oregon’s) corners were going to play us man to man, and the way we’ve worked all season, we just felt like nobody could cover us one-on-one,” Darby explained.

Much of the Sun Devils' downfield success can be attributed to strong protection from the offensive line.

Utilizing a heavy amount of play action and boot-leg concepts, the ASU coaching staff was able to manufacture clean pockets for Daniels Saturday, unlocking previously unattainable aspects of the Sun Devil offense. 

“We wanted to get outside and make them run,” Likens said. “That also makes the big guys run a little bit and we just felt like we could get the edge on them. We have good athletes man. Let them get in space as well.”

Possibly the biggest adjustment instituted by the ASU coaches though, was the culmination of multiple weeks worth of messaging surrounding the team’s past poor starts. 

Week after week, ASU had suffered from disappointing beginnings, punctuated by 28 first quarter points allowed in its loss to USC. But Saturday was a distinctly different story, as ASU held the Ducks to a measly seven points through three quarters.

“We worked on that all week,” Likens said of the team’s strong start. “Coach Herm (Edwards) did a phenomenal job of emphasizing that to the kids. Every time he got in front of the team, all he talked about was ‘fast start, fast start.’”

Defensively, ASU played “really, really good,” defensive coordinator Danny Gonazles said, up until the game’s final minutes. That was when a lethargic Oregon offense came to life, scoring 14 unanswered points in just over two minutes to cut the Sun Devil lead to three. 

“All of a sudden, within five minutes they just came back,” Edwards remembered. “(It was) a barrage of scoring. We knew that if they got going, they could keep it going.”

Thanks to an 81-yard touchdown connection between Daniels and Aiyuk with 3:54 remaining, the Sun Devil defense was able to avoid what would’ve been a collapse of historic proportions. Gonzales, though, highlighted the strong play of three particular players. 

“What really helped, (cornerbacks) Jack (Jones) and Chase (Lucas) played significantly better tonight,” Gonzales said. “Kobe (Williams) was on the outside, and when you can share those reps with those three, we’re pretty good on the outside.”

Possibly Gonzales's favorite aspect of his defense heading into Saturday’s matchup was the unbridled confidence the group was equipped with. Despite finding themselves losers of four straight games, Gonzales was impressed with the faith they had in their teammates and the poise that oozed out of his team in the lead up to Saturday night. 

“There was never a moment during the week that our guys didn’t think they were going to win,” Gonzales said. “The mantra kind of was, especially in the locker room before the game, that (Oregon) had no idea what they were getting into.”

“We just kind of looked at each other and was just like, if we’re going to do something, today in this game is the game to do it,” Lucas said of Saturday’s win. “We knew it was going to be a big stage and we just wanted to shine.”

With bowl eligibility now achieved, ASU now turns its focus to its rivals from Tucson. With the Wildcats coming to town, the Sun Devils will look to build on the lessons learned from Saturday’s season-defining victory and earn Edwards his second victory against Arizona.

 Reach the reporter at or follow @jacobrosenfarb on Twitter. 

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