Arizona State‘s football victory over the Oregon Ducks last night was like a long, cold drink of water to a man dying of thirst in the hot Sonoran desert.
That man in the desert would be Todd Graham, the sixth-year head coach at ASU, who actually is facing death of a certain kind. If he doesn’t pull off a miracle in the desert this season, after two consecutive losing records, his career with the Sun Devils will be on life support.
And the team that showed up last night for the Pac-12 opener just might be capable of giving its coach the miracle he needs.
This was not the same team that started the season by losing two of its three games. The team that beat the No. 24-ranked Ducks, 37-35, last night had its act together.
For the last three games Oregon has played, the high-octane Ducks have been averaging 42 points — by halftime! This ASU team held them to two touchdowns to go into the locker room with a 17-14 lead.
Oregon had been converting over 50% of its third-down attempts coming into this game. This ASU team held the Ducks to 1-for-11, while converting on eight of its own attempts.
This team was not deterred by the fact that ASU has failed in five of its last six attempts to beat a ranked team.
And this ASU team didn’t fold against the mighty Ducks, as others have done in the past, letting Oregon string together 10 straight wins against the Sun Devils, going all the way back to the last time ASU won in the match-up, Oct. 2 of 2004.
Right from the beginning of last night’s game, this team let the 50,110 fans in Sun Devil Stadium know that things would be different.
On ASU’s first drive of the game, quarterback Manny Wilkins engineered a quick-strike drive that covered 40 yards in five plays, taking the ball across the goal line himself. He completed all three of his pass attempts before posting his first rushing touchdown of the season on an 8-yard run. The redshirt junior came focused and ready to play.
Oregon evened the scored 2 1/2 minutes later, but the Devils took the lead back with 3:15 left in the first quarter when N’Keal Harry capped a 15-play, 75-yard drive with a three-yard TD reception, and then a 29-yard Brandon Ruiz field goal in the final minute made it 17-7.
Ruiz is a freshman from Williams Field High School in Gilbert who was considered one of the top kickers in this year’s recruiting class, headed for Alabama before deciding instead to stay home and play for the Sun Devils.
Harry, the sophomore wide receiver from Chandler High School, finished the night with 170 yards, one of two ASU receivers to pass the 100-yard mark on the evening. Redshirt junior Jalen Harvey contributed another 133 yards to the offensive effort. That makes five Sun Devil receivers that have hit that mark in at least one game this season, the first time that’s been done in program history.
Oregon ground the ASU offense to a near halt in the second quarter as the Devils failed to cross mid-field for the entire quarter. But the Ducks were able to pick up a last-minute score, thanks to an ASU error.
With 36 seconds left in the half, Ryan Newsome bobbled an Oregon punt to give the Ducks the ball on the ASU 12-yard line. It took the Ducks just one play for running back Royce Freeman to find the end zone and close the gap to 17-14 at the half.
As the second half opened, ASU got off to a fast start, scoring twice in the first five minutes on another rushing TD by Wilkins and then one by senior running back Demario Richard, who punched it in from the seven after the score was set up with a long pass completion to Harry.
Oregon answered with a couple of TDs of its own and the score settled in at 31-28, with ASU holding a slim lead going into the final quarter. But in the final 1:44 of the third quarter, JoJo Wicker forced a Ducks’ fumble and Tashon Smallwood fell on the ball to give the Devils another chance to score. ASU ended up turning it into another Ruiz field goal as the fourth frame opened, giving ASU a 34-28 lead.
An Oregon 74-yard drive that ended in a four-yard romp into the end zone by quarterback Justin Herbert gave the Ducks their first lead of the game, 35-34, and put ASU fans on the edge of their seats for the final six minutes and 41 seconds.
Another Ruiz field goal, this one from 41 yards out, gave the lead back to ASU and the Devils were able to hold off a heart-stopping Oregon drive over the game’s final 46 seconds.
Wilkins closed out the night with a passing touchdown and two more on the ground for 382 total yards.
(Photo: Oregon Athletics)