A couple of Arizona State‘s key strengths this season have been the ability to stage successful come-from-behind rallies and to dominate opponents in the fourth quarter. The Sun Devils had been outscored in the final frame just once this season.
No. 21 Fresno State (12-2) held the Devils scoreless in the fourth quarter of the Metsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl, while adding the insurance touchdown it needed to push its scoring advantage to 11 points and coast to the 31-20 victory. The Bulldogs, the Mountain West Conference champion, managed that feat despite playing through three turnovers in the second half, one of which was a fumble at the one-yard line that probably would have resulted in another FSU score.
And ASU (7-6) coughed up the loss despite its workhorse running back, Eno Benjamin, setting the school single-season rushing record. The sophomore earned the record before the first half was over, collecting the 42 yards he needed to pass the old record of 1,565, set back in 1972 by Woody Green. He added a pile of yardage to that the rest of the way to finish the game with 118 yards on 23 carries, and 1,642 for the season. His 16 rushing touchdowns this season puts him sixth on the school’s all-time list in that category.
The Sun Devils started the game in a 10-0 hole, but managed to tie it up 17-17 by halftime, thanks to a 3-yard TD reception by Kyle Williams, a seven-yard run by Benjamin, and a 20-yard field goal by Brandon Ruiz.
Those 17 points were the most first-half points scored on the FSU defense all season. Things were looking good.
But the Devils couldn’t build on the momentum. Some halftime adjustments by the Bulldogs helped corral the ASU offense, limiting senior quarterback Manny Wilkins to short completions to keep him from tossing a game-breaker, and shoring up the offensive line to contain Benjamin. Wilkins finished with 116 passing yards, completing 19 of 31 attempts.
The ASU offense, which had piled up 230 yards in the first half, managed just 63 yards in the final two quarters. FSU, on the other hand, collected 281 of its total 426 yards in the second half.
The FSU defense, which came into the game ranked No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense, became the first team this season to beat the Devils by a margin more than seven points.
ASU had its share of opportunities to turn this game on its ear. At the 9:37 mark of the third quarter, freshman safety Aashari Crosswell intercepted Marcus McMaryion at the ASU 45, but the Devils had to settle for a field goal. Less than 10 minutes later, Chase Lucas snagged his third INT of the season, giving ASU the ball at its own 48-yard line. That time, ASU came up empty, punting away after three plays.
Those two interceptions were against a team that had allowed just three all season. But instead of stunning the Bulldogs, it just seemed to provide more motivation for a team that was on a mission to become the first FSU football team to reach 12 wins.
Ruiz put the only points on the board for ASU in the half with a 44-yard field goal late in the third quarter.
There was one bright spot in the loss, in addition to Benjamin’s claiming the rushing record. Brandon Aiyuk emerged as the heir apparent to take over N’Keal Harry‘s role as leading receiver next season. The junior from California finished with a team-high 61 yards on nine receptions, but also added 115 yards on five kick-off returns and ran back a punt for 17 yards.
Harry decided before the game to forego his senior year to enter the NFL draft, a move approved by his coaches and teammates, and spent this one on the sidelines cheering on his team’s efforts.
His absence was felt, but so, too, were some key players on defense that also missed the game. The Devils were without their top two tacklers. Redshirt senior safety Jalen Harvey was out with a neck/shoulder injury, and freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson was called to a family emergency.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)