It all came down to the final 45 seconds of a college football game, with so much riding on a single play… a 10-win season for Arizona State, a major bowl victory, and a top-15 national ranking to end the 2014 season and build momentum for 2015.
As bowl games go, yesterday’s Hyundai Sun Bowl couldn’t be beat for pure excitement – right down to the final season-ending highlight-reel interception.
Unranked Duke (9-4) was like the proverbial piece of gum stuck to the sole of your shoe, and the No. 15-ranked Sun Devils needed almost the entire four quarters to shake them once and for all. That finally happened when ASU defensive back Kweishi Brown turned his face into the bright sun in the back corner of the end zone and located the pass from Duke’s Anthony Boone just in time to make the game-saving interception that killed Duke’s final threat and gave ASU a thrilling 36-31 victory.
As the fourth quarter wound down, it looked like ASU was ready to put this one in the win column, thanks to a heart-stopping kick-off return by ASU’s freshman running back, Kalen Ballage.
With just 4:45 left in the fourth quarter of yesterday’s game, Ballage caught the Duke kick-off in his own end zone and returned it the length of the field to the Duke four-yard line. Demario Richard, another freshman running back, carried it the rest of the way on the next play to re-take the lead, 36-31, a lead the Sun Devils had held the entire game before Duke engineered an 11-play scoring drive 10 minutes into the final quarter of play to gain a one-point advantage.
But Duke wasn’t about to give in. The Blue Devils started the final possession of the game on their own 29-yard line and drove to the ASU 15 before Brown killed their last chance for the win, and the Sun Devils ran out the final 45 ticks left on the clock to cap a 10-3 season that, at one point, saw them climb to No. 6 in the national polls.
This final game of the season will be one ASU fans remember for some time to come because it capped off a great season with a display of solid, fundamental football in front of a national television audience. The Sun Devils moved the ball with consistency, were nearly penalty-free (two flags for five yards each), rebounded from adversity, and were able to rally back when the score went against them late in the game.
And it marked the “return” of senior quarterback Kelly, who looked like himself once again after struggling at times since coming back from an early-schedule injury that put him on the sidelines for several games; the Devils lost two of their last three regular-season games. Kelly finished out his college career with 240 yards on 24-of-34 passing, throwing two touchdowns and no interceptions. He leaves the college game with a school-record 10,223 career yards of total offense.
With ‘the old’ Kelly under center, ASU came out firing, taking just five plays for its first score and then added a field goal on each of the next two possessions to take a 13-3 lead. The Sun Devils drove into the red zone on both of those possessions, but Duke was able to keep them out of the end zone and avoid a runaway lead that would have been hard to overcome.
Just as Kelly was having one of his better games of the year, Duke QB Boone was having an off day. He completed just three of his first nine pass attempts and five of those misses were just plain ugly.
ASU scored again on its fourth possession as the deficit ballooned to 20-3. This time the Devils converted on a fourth-and-one to keep the drive alive in the red zone and set Richard up for his second score of the game, a one-yard plunge that capped off a 12-play, 66-yard drive.
The true freshman from Palmdale, Calif., went on to score twice more on pass receptions as he matched the all-time school record for most touchdowns in a bowl game, set by Woody Green back in 1972 at the Fiesta Bowl. In fact, it’s been 12 years since an ASU freshman has scored a touchdown in a bowl game.
Duke closed the gap to 20-17 by halftime, but it wasn’t a good omen for the Blue Devils to be behind at intermission. Coming into the contest, ASU had won 11 of 12 games this year when leading at the half.
And, true to form, the Sun Devils went back on the march as they started the second half with the ball and pushed the score to 27-17 as Kelly completed 5-for-5 passes in an eight-play drive that ended with an 11-yard TD pass to Richard.
Duke looked like it was about to make a surege with five minutes left in the third quarter, but fumbled the ball away just before it crossed into the red zone and Jordan Simone picked the ball up on a bounce and carried it back to the 36-yard line. Zane Gonzalez booted a 47-yard field goal to run the score to 30-17 before the quarter ended.
At that point, Duke head coach David Cutcliffe reached into his bag of tricks to pull out a fake punt and a half-back option trick pass play to help his team take the lead, 31-30, with 5:03 left in the game.
But Ballage’s 96-yard punt return drained the life from Duke’s short-lived momentum, but the Blue Devils marched from their own 29-yard line to the ASU 15 and threatened to pull the rug from under the Sun Devils – until Brown’s INT sealed the win for ASU.
The game’s MVP award went to Richard, who finished with seven carries for 41 yards and two touchdowns, while also adding another 22 yards on five receptions. Senior defensive end Marcus Hardison was given the lineman award.
Junior receiver Jaelen Strong, who has indicated he will be leaving early to enter the next NFL draft, wrapped up his ASU career with seven catches for 103 yards. D.J. Foster, the junior running back from Scottsdale’s Saguaro High School who is still considering whether to join Strong in an early departure, had 121 all-purpose yards.
It has been awhile since an ASU football team has won 10 games in back-to-back seasons. You have to go back to the early ’70s when Frank Kush last accomplished that feat.
This was also the 28th win for Graham, which sets a new record for a head coach in his first three seasons at ASU. The old record of 27 wins has stood for more than a half century, set by Dan Devine in 1955-57.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)