Arizona State junior quarterback Manny Wilkins shook his head in disappointment on Wednesday as he recalled the final drive at Texas Tech where the Sun Devils turned the ball over on downs and failed to tie the game in a two-minute situation. He admitted that loss stung in a different way than others, but didn’t quite know why.
On Saturday, he received his chance at redemption when No. 24 Oregon took its first lead in the fourth quarter. Trailing by a point, Wilkins and the offense ran back onto the field with 6:32 remaining as they tried to give the program its first win over the Ducks since 2004.
Senior running back Demario Richard carried three straight times, gaining 25 total yards. Wilkins then hit junior receiver Jalen Harvey for a 15-yard gain. Three plays later in a third down situation, Wilkins connected with Harvey for another first down. But the offense didn’t move much further.
Wilkins had done his job, though. On fourth down, true freshman kicker Brandon Ruiz made a go-ahead, 41-yard field goal to put ASU ahead, 37-35.
“I think we just prepared for it,” Wilkins said of being in the same situation as last week. “Our mindset is every time we’re on the field our goal is to score seven points. I think we did a really good job of executing our game plan. They threw some stuff at us that was really good but at the end of the day we just executed a little bit better.”
Two Sun Devil penalties moved the Ducks forward, but Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert was eventually stopped short by senior linebacker DJ Calhoun on a fourth-down scramble. The Sun Devils couldn’t get the one first down that would have sealed the game, so Oregon had another chance on its own 10-yard line with 46 seconds remaining.
Herbert completed his first pass for a first down, but his next four fell incomplete. The defensive players sprinted to the huddle and chest-bumped teammates. Finally, they sealed the victory.
“We always talked about just finishing, and today we just had that edge, that little chip on our shoulder, and just building off of each other’s energy, off of the offense’s energy, and just getting it done,” senior defensive lineman Alani Latu said.
Thus, the Sun Devils (2-2, 1-0 Pac-12), who preached all week about Pac-12 play being a “new season,” started the fresh slate with a home victory against No. 24 Oregon (3-0, 0-1). The victory in front of a raucous Sun Devil Stadium crowd felt like a breath of fresh air for a program surrounded by negative storylines because of its poor play dating back to last season.
“This one really felt good just because you go after two losses and your mindset is a little like, ‘We just need to get one, get this rolling,’” Wilkins said.
The Sun Devils showed a sense of urgency on Saturday that they hadn’t all season. They led Oregon, 17-7, after a quarter. They took deep shots. They mixed it up on defense.
Near the end of the first quarter, they even perfectly executed a surprise onside kick and recovered it after scoring their second touchdown of the night.
“If we think we can take advantage of something someone’s doing, we’re going to do it,” ASU coach Todd Graham said of the onside kick.
ASU was hoping its second-half offensive spurt at Texas Tech carried over into this week, and it did. The unit stalled at points, but the performance was as complete as it’s shown all year.
Wilkins finished 24-for-39 with 347 yards and a touchdown through the air and ran for 35 yards and two more scores. Sophomore receiver N’Keal Harry had a career night against Texas Tech but perhaps topped it against the Ducks as he caught seven passes for 170 yards and a touchdown.
During the week, receivers coach Rob Likens discussed Oregon’s press and how ASU wanted the Ducks to use it on Harry. They did, and he made them pay.
On one specific play, Wilkins heaved it to Harry on 3rd-and-27 and Harry came down with the ball for a huge 52-yard gain that led to a Ruiz field goal to give ASU a 34-28 lead.
“For him to have that trust in me to throw me that ball, it’s my job to go get it,” Harry said. “I just wanted to make sure I came down with it and get us the first down.
“If you try to man coverage me, that’s going of disrespectful. So whenever they do that, I just have the mindset that I’m going to come down with the ball every time.”
In last season’s matchup between these two teams in Eugene, Oregon, Herbert threw for 489 yards and five touchdowns. This year, ASU’s offense totaled 489 yards. Herbert completed 19 of 35 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns, but the Sun Devils somewhat slowed a potent Oregon offense.
That could’ve been the most surprising part of the night. ASU entered the game struggling mightily on third down but held Oregon to just 1-for-11. It also kept the Ducks off the field as they ran just 65 plays compared to ASU’s 92. And the unit did all of that while missing senior linebacker Koron Crump, perhaps its most talented player.
Oregon averaged 6.2 yards per play as ASU still gave up explosive plays, but the Ducks tripped over themselves all night. They committed 14 penalties for 99 yards.
“We played a hell of a game on defense,” Wilkins said. “I think (the offense) put them in a couple of situations that we shouldn’t have put them in, but I’m really proud of how those guys really went out there like [A.J. Latu] said with a chip on their shoulder and really played their butts off.”
In the first quarter, Wilkins started the scoring with an 8-yard keeper. Oregon responded about two minutes later when Herbert found Dillon Mitchell for a 7-yard score on an end zone fade. Near the end of the quarter, Wilkins hit Harry on a play-action rollout.
The Sun Devils almost played a clean half, but receiver Ryan Newsome muffed the punt right before halftime and Oregon recovered. On its first play, senior running back Royce Freeman — who was held mostly in check with 15 carries for 81 yards — ran for a 12-yard score to bring the Ducks within three at the half.
ASU began the second half with a bang when Wilkins hit Harvey for a 63-yard gain before scampering for a 2-yard touchdown run. On the Sun Devils’ next drive, Wilkins connected with Harry, who shed a few Ducks and ran for a large gain. That set up Richard’s 7-yard touchdown run, making it 31-14 ASU.
The Ducks wouldn’t be silenced all night, though. Receiver Johnny Johnson III ( a Chandler High School alum) beat freshman corner Chase Lucas (another Chandler alum) and caught a touchdown. About five minutes later, Herbert found running back Tony Brooks-James for a 22-yard score.
“I thought we responded well. We got ourselves back in it and took the lead in the fourth quarter,” Oregon coach Willie Taggart said. “I was really impressed with our football team. They fought, we took the lead, and we just didn’t finish it off there near the end, but I was impressed our guys came back and took the lead in the fourth quarter.”
Ruiz made a 24-yard field goal with 13:25 remaining in regulation, but Oregon stayed firm in its attack. His team trailing by six points, Herbert ran for a 4-yard touchdown to put the Ducks ahead, their first lead of the night.
The Sun Devils remained resilient and didn’t let Saturday’s game slip away. After Ruiz’s go-ahead field goal, they stopped Oregon twice more.
When they sang the fight song after beating New Mexico State, there was a bit of a lull. Perhaps it was because they knew they should’ve played better. But after beating ranked Oregon, they yelled, swayed and riled one another up. It felt like the big win it was.
And ASU needed it. The stakes were high as it tried to fend off a 1-3 start, a difficult hole to climb out of with a gauntlet stretch of conference opponents ahead.
Whether it be on social media or otherwise, Wilkins has talked about ignoring the outside noise.
“When you lose, there’s going to be negative talk,” Wilkins said after Saturday’s win. “When you win, there’s going to be positive talk and they’re going to find something to talk about that’s negative.”
He’s right. Though ASU won the game, it could have lost. It was as complete a performance as the Sun Devils have shown all year, but there were also flaws that could be exposed down the road.
“As long as we put wins on the board, nothing anybody says matters,” Wilkins said.