There was 12:25 left in the game. Arizona trailed Arizona State 27-17. The Wildcats, after an illegal block penalty on the kick return, were pushed back to their 6-yard-line, pushed to the brink.
Time was running out at Sun Devil Stadium. Arizona had scored only once in its past eight possessions. The last chance to feel something good about the season was slipping away.
“Maybe in some other games during the course of the season, if we were down 10 at this point in the game, I’m not sure we believed we could win the game,” said UA quarterbacks coach Frank Scelfo. “We still believed we could win the game here.”
But it was now or ever.
A short drive, or a three-and-out, likely would set up ASU on a short field, potentially in position for a game-clinching score. The Cats had to hit the accelerator.
“Arizona State had a bead on us pretty good,” Scelfo said.
“We wanted to increase the tempo and kind of take them out of their comfort zone. Probably should have done it earlier, but that’s hindsight.”
What followed was a 94-yard drive in which Arizona played fast, quarterback Nick Foles was accurate and decisive, and receiver Gino Crump made one spectacular play.
* * *
Arizona got a break on the first play of the drive. Foles threw an uncatchable pass well over Crump’s head on the right sideline, but ASU safety Eddie Elder nonetheless smacked Crump and drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty.
Instead of second-and-10 at the 6, Arizona had first-and-10 at its 21.
“When things like that happen, you just get some energy,” Scelfo said.
Foles intended to hit a quick out pattern on the next play, but Arizona State had it covered while quickly breaking down UA’s pass protection. Scelfo’s words were still ringing in Foles’ ears — you cannot take a sack — and he maneuvered out of the pocket and shuffled the ball to Richard Morrison with his left hand as he was tackled.
“How about that guy,” Scelfo said of Foles.
The play went for no gain, but at least it wasn’t a loss and Arizona didn’t have to panic. Foles, though, was under pressure again on second down. He had initially been looking left but after stepping through the traffic in the backfield, came back to find Dan Buckner in the right flat. Buckner made a man miss and gained 14 yards.
“Obviously, he’s not Michael Vick back there,” Scelfo said of Foles, “but he does a great job of extending the play when things break down.”
Arizona was now on the move.
* * *
The Wildcats’ fast pace was beginning to take effect.
ASU didn’t have to time to make different defensive calls and to give Arizona “junk” as Scelfo called it. The Sun Devils had to stick with their base 4-3 defense, with the four defensive backs in quarters coverage.
The Sun Devils didn’t have much time to think. When Arizona snapped the ball after Buckner’s catch, only one ASU defensive lineman — tackle Bo Moos — had his hand on the ground, ready to play.
Arizona, meanwhile, was making adjustments.
After seeing Foles scrambling on the previous two plays, the coaches called for a sprint-out to the left, moving the pocket. They couldn’t let him get hit again. Foles threw on the run and hit a quick pass to Juron Criner for a gain of 6.
That was fine. Arizona just wanted to keep playing “inside the chains,” Scelfo said. They also had just made ASU’s defensive linemen chase a play to the perimeter, further wearing them out. The pass rush the rest of the drive would not be a factor.
Arizona was now at its 41.
ASU was still in its base coverage. Arizona had two receivers on either side and knew what to expect. Foles quickly looked for running back Ka’Deem Carey in the right flat, the same screen pass on which running back Keola Antolin went 46 yards in the first quarter.
Carey picked up a block and gained 15 yards. A teammate helped him get off the ground so Arizona could get lined up quickly.
Foles took the snap. His first option was to find receiver David Roberts, coming from the left side, over the middle. Foles read middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He had stayed home. Foles glanced away and read cornerback Alden Darby to his left.
If Darby had stayed in the flat, then Roberts would work off Burfict back toward the sideline, settling down between the coverage. But Darby went with Roberts, bracketing the receiver and jamming him in the middle of the field.
Foles could have gone to Criner on a curl route near the left sideline. But that wasn’t his progression. He quickly flipped the pages in his mental playbook: If Darby went with Roberts, then Carey was going to be open on a swing pass to the left.
Foles processed all this in an instant, re-set his feet to throw to the left and fired to Carey, who picked up 11 yards to the ASU 33.
“That is where he has grown so fast,” Scelfo said of Foles.
“I get aggravated when people say, ‘He’s rushing his throws.’ Nobody knows what he is doing. He has so much stuff to do, man. Does he look skittish in the pocket? Not a bit. He looks very comfortable. He gets his feet set. He makes a throw.
“The swing pass is not an easy pass to make, and he makes it and gives it to Ka’Deem in a position where he can get it and go run.”
* * *
ASU had just seen Arizona go 61 yards in less than two minutes. The Devils had to do something to mix up their defense. They did. Pre-snap, Foles spotted a safety in the middle of the field. ASU was man-to-man in what Arizona called “one rat.”
The “rat” was linebacker Colin Parker, who was on the right side of ASU’s formation. He was an X-factor. His job was to read Foles and react.
The middle of the field was closed. ASU was prepared to come with pressure. Foles saw this. He made a check at the line. He knew what to do based off his work during the week in film study.
“We knew going in that if they match up this play with this coverage, throw this route,” Scelfo said.
The call was a quick hitch to Crump, lined up on the left side with Roberts. Cornerback Osahon Irabor was playing about 8 yards off Crump. Arizona would be happy to complete the pass, take 5 yards, stay inside the chains and keep on moving.
But timing is everything.
Foles took the shotgun snap, took a couple of steps back, decisively planted and threw to Crump. As Foles’ hands were split as he prepared to throw, Irabor broke on the ball.
Scelfo sat in his office earlier this week, breaking down the play all over again. What if Foles, he wondered, was a tenth of a second later in delivering the pass?
That fraction might have been enough for Irabor to close enough to stop Crump right where he caught the pass. That is exactly what had happened on the same play earlier in the game.
This time, Crump had just enough separation.
He spun to the sideline, shaking an attempted tackle around his waist. Parker, the rat, had reacted well to the pass, but he overran the play and missed the tackle, too. Roberts was down field, getting in the way just enough to provide some blocking.
Crump cut inside, cut back outside and went 33 yards for a touchdown.
“Once I broke that first tackle, I was in the zone from that point on,” Crump said after Wednesday’s practice.
“That one play will go down in my personal hall of fame forever. I’ve probably watched it 20 times, maybe more. If I’m not watching it, one of friends or something is posting it on my Facebook. It’s hard to avoid it right now.”
* * *
Arizona went 94 yards in two minutes, eight seconds. The Wildcats were back in the game.
They still needed another touchdown drive, and multiple key defensive plays, to win. They got them all. Arizona won 31-27.
Foles, though, couldn’t finish the game, didn’t throw another pass after the one to Crump, leaving the game with a rib contusion.
There is no guarantee Foles will be able to play Saturday against Louisiana in the final game of his career. If he doesn’t, he goes out on the highest of notes — going 6 for 6 for 79 yards on his final full drive.
At first glance, none of his throws was instantly memorable. Crump made the highlight play. But Foles was basically perfect. He kept plays alive. He played fast. He made all the right reads. He knew exactly where to go with the ball. He didn’t hesitate. He hit receivers in stride.
“What you saw the whole drive was Nick being quick in his decision-making,” said Scelfo, snapping his fingers. “It was right there. It was right on.
“He missed some stuff during the game. On this drive, he didn’t.”