Source: USA TODAY
PASADENA, Calif. — No. 22 Arizona State came into southern California and put a total damper on what was looking like it might be a wild week to come in the always heated UCLA-USC intercity rivalry.
Now next week’s UCLA-USC game will be for pride only, as underdog Arizona State survived a near-collapse in the second half and clinched the Pac-12 South division in a 38-33 thriller against No. 14 UCLA Saturday night in the Rose Bowl.
And ASU, for now, is not the perennial underachiever and non-finisher.
For 3½ hours Saturday night, though it wasn’t always pretty, the Sun Devils battled, persevered and, in the end, finished.
It was enough to bring tears – really – to the eyes of ASU coach Todd Graham, a pug-nosed, barrel-chested guy not normally associated with weeping.
“I’ve been doing this for 28 years,” said Graham, 48, “and that was the most impressive display of heart of any football team I’ve ever seen. To watch these kids lay it on the line with that kind of heart was just overwhelming to me.”
Graham would call his quarterback Taylor Kelly “a winner” and he would call tailback Marion Grice “a warrior” but he seemed to have a special feeling for ASU’s strength coach Shawn Griswold.
“What you witnessed out there was training,” Graham said. “They’ve been trained. They’ve been strained. We’ve had conflict in every game. It’s made us tough. Those guys are tough, man.”
The Sun Devils (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12 South) have clinched a spot in the Pac-12 title game Dec. 7, when they will play Stanford (9-2, 7-2 Pac-12 North) for a berth in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl.
ASU can clinch home-field advantage if it beats Arizona next week. If ASU loses to Arizona, Stanford, which beat Arizona State 42-28 earlier this season, will be the host team.
UCLA (8-3, 5-3) could have won the South if the Bruins had won Saturday and then won again against USC next Saturday in the Coliseum. Even USC could have won the division, if it beat Colorado Saturday, beat UCLA next week and Arizona State lost twice.
So Saturday’s game was something of a showdown, if not your typical Pac-12 showdown. In fact, it was the first time UCLA and Arizona State met when both teams were in the AP Top 25 since 1986.
Arizona State hasn’t played in a Rose Bowl since the end of the 1996 season. The Sun Devils’ only Rose Bowl victory came at the end of the 1986 season.
Graham has put the Sun Devils in reach of those goals earlier than most people thought possible. He is 17-7 overall at ASU, 12-5 in conference play.
“To come on the road and win this game is a big, big deal for the program,” Graham said. “It’s been a quick journey the last two years.”
The Sun Devils came out in dominant fashion and the game seemed pretty much over at halftime, ASU leading 35-13 after outgaining UCLA 357 to 136 in total yards.
Kelly, the ASU quarterback, was masterful in the first half in running the read option attack, gaining 84 yards himself and directing a 208-yard rushing attack.
He also threw for 149 yards and a touchdown in the first half and delivered perhaps the most demoralizing blow to the Bruins when he finished off a hurry-up, four-play, 62-yard drive with a perfectly placed 19-yard scoring pass to Jaelen Strong with five seconds left in the half.
That made it 35-13.
“We struggled containing the quarterback,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “He kept drives alive. He frustrated us. We couldn’t find the ball. We got caught out of position on some things. That’s what was frustrating to me – not being able to handle the quarterback defensively.”
Kelly, a junior from Idaho, ended up with 99 yards rushing and 225 yards passing, completing 20 of 27 with no interceptions and one touchdown.
He has been overshadowed by other Pac-12 quarterbacks but his stats deserve a long look when it comes to deciding postseason honors. He passed the 3,000-yard mark in passing Saturday and has rushed for more than 400 yards.
“I try not to pay any attention to who’s getting noticed and who’s not,” Kelly said. “I’m focused on what I need to do to make my team a championship team.”
Despite Kelly’s excellence, the Bruins sent a huge scare through the Sun Devils in the second half, scoring two quick touchdowns in the third quarter to get right back into the game.
Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley, who was booed during a miserable first half, brought the Bruins back to within five points and had them deep in ASU territory with a chance to take the lead. But a third-down scramble came up short and the Bruins missed a field goal that would have closed it to 38-36.
The Bruins got the ball back needing to go 65 yards for a touchdown with 3:21 left.
They converted a fourth-and-5 to get to the ASU 45 but that’s as far as they got.
“It got pretty stressful,” ASU linebacker Chris Young said. “But we made a big stop at the end. We came together like brothers.”
Like champions, even, which is something Arizona State hasn’t been called in quite a while.