Mike Bercovici. There’s a chance that Arizona State football fans may not hear that named called again for the rest of the season, but it has become firmly enshrined in program lore – as well as its record books.
The junior from California, filling in again at quarterback for the Sun Devils in last night’s game with the No. 16-ranked USC Trojans, played with the poise of a veteran as he directed an amazing comeback effort with three touchdown drives in the final 3:53 minutes – and then pulled out a miraculous victory with a 46-yard Hail Mary pass as time ran out.
Starting quarterback Taylor Kelly has been out with an injured right foot since the Sept. 13 game against Colorado and could possibly return in time for the next game, an Oct. 18 home contest against Stanford.
But last night’s game, played on the road in the intimidating confines of the Los Angeles Coliseum, will go down as one of the biggest ASU comebacks ever.
Before head coach Todd Graham could even get off the field after the game, a sideline reporter asked him what he was feeling. “About to have a heart attack,” was his immediate reply.
And the fact that it was pulled off by a back-up quarterback in just the second start of his college career makes it the stuff of legends. Add to that the fact that the youngster was passed over for the starting job in 2012 and seriously considered leaving the program at that point to possibly get immediate playing time somewhere else.
Instead, Bercovici took a redshirt year as a sophomore and elected to stay with the program he really wanted to be with and wait for his chance to get the starting job when Kelly graduated after this season. The opportunity just came sooner than expected.
In his first 2014 start, the previous week, he was under center for one of the worst defeats in school history, when UCLA hung 62 points on the Sun Devils (4-1, 2-1) at home – the most ever scored against an ASU team in Sun Devil Stadium. Talk about your confidence destroyer!
Bercovici was faced with bouncing back from that crushing experience nine days later, a task that would have been difficult enough for Kelly, the man he replaced. But this was a huge mountain to climb for an understudy still on unsteady footing, one whose entire college resume included limited appearances in just nine games as a back-up.
But, to be fair, the loss against UCLA had little to do with Bercovici and more to do with a young defense that met up with a strong team capable of exploiting its inexperience. Yes, Bercovici threw a couple of interceptions, but he also set a couple of school records in the loss with his 42 completions in 68 attempts. He literally wore his arm out throwing for 488 yards of offense in helping his team to a total 626 yards on the night.
And last night he did all the same things again, only better – and with zero interceptions. He became the first quarterback in ASU history to pass for over 400 yards in his first two career starts.
His stats included 27-for-45 passing for 510 yards and five touchdowns, the fifth ASU quarterback ever to throw for more than 500 yards in a single game. The five touchdowns in one game put him in a tie at No. 4 on the school’s all-time list.
But it took two to pull off the miracle against the men of Troy. It was redshirt junior receiver Jaelen Strong that pulled down the final pass from amid a crowd of USC defenders, capping a career-high night of 202 yards in receptions and three touchdowns. The last one is now being referred to as the ‘Jael Mary” in his honor.
“It was a little bit of a prayer, I’ll be honest,” admitted Bercovici when asked about the pass that has become a highlight reel. “I didn’t think I got it that far. It looked like a little bit of a duck.
“But I needed to give us a chance, and who else but Jaelen Strong comes up with it?”
For his efforts, Strong was named the FBS Offensive Player of the Week, the first Sun Devil in 10 years to earn the award from the Walter Camp Football Foundation.
“It was just a play we work on every week,” said the 6’3″ junior-college transfer. “It’s a game of inches, and that’s the things we work for all season.” Mike Norvell, the team’s offensive coordinator, devotes time at each Thursday’s practice to simulating the game-ending pass play.
“I just did what I was coached to do and did my job,” Strong insists. “Coach (DelVaughn) Alexander (wide receivers’ coach) talks about attacking the ball. I saw the ball in the air and the first thing I thought was ‘I’m going to get this.’ At first I thought I don’t know if I can get to it, but I put my head down and kept running and got it.
I don’t even remember.”
Well, the fans have it firmly etched in their memories. And the play will always bring back recollections of how a loyal, patient back-up quarterback made one of the biggest plays in ASU program history.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)