Sun Devil Science: ASU vs. Top-5 Teams
“To be the man, you gotta beat the man!”
The words famously exclaimed by “Nature Boy” Ric Flair prove true in major college football as to be a legitimate player in the national landscape, a team has to take down top-ranked opponents.
Playing top-25 teams is highly valuable, playing top-10 teams brings indubitable prestige to a team’s schedule but to square off head-to-head with top-5 teams – teams likely in the thick of the national championship race – is a different level altogether.
In what is ASU’s 40th full season in the conference, Saturday marks the 23rd time the Sun Devils have faced a top-5 team (according to the Associated Press Poll) since joining the Pac-10.
Altogether, ASU is 3-19 against top-five opponents since joining the Pac-10 Conference in 1978. Included among those 22 games is a 2-10 record in Tempe, a 0-8 record on the road and a 1-1 record in bowl games. Thirteen of the games have been in conference play (1-12 record) while nine have come against non-conference opponents (2-7 record).
Saturday’s game against No. 5 Washington marks the first time since 2013 ASU has played a top-5 team and the first time since 2012 the Sun Devils have hosted one. Not since 1996, however, has Arizona State beaten a team ranked in the AP top-5 at the time of the game.
ASU vs. Top-5 Opponents (1978-Present)
2013 – at #5 Stanford
Playing on the road at Stanford, ASU fell behind 29-0 at the half but put up a fight in the second half to lose by a score of 42-28 on Sept. 21, 2013.
Kevin Hogan threw two touchdowns to Ty Montgomery and Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney scored a pair of rushing touchdowns. Taylor Kelly threw for 367 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, while Jaelen Strong caught 12 passes for 168 yards and a score.
The two teams would later play in the Pac-12 Conference championship game in Tempe, with Stanford winning and going on to the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal finished the year with an 11-3 record and No. 11 AP Poll ranking.
2012 - #2 Oregon
ASU got off to a 7-0 first quarter lead, but after Will Sutton was sidelined due to injury the Ducks surged to a 43-7 first-half lead and ultimately a 43-21 victory on Oct. 18, 2012.
Oregon rushed for 406 yards as a team with four touchdowns as running back Kenjon Barner and quarterback Marcus Mariota both went over the 100-yard rushing mark.
The Ducks finished the season with a 12-1 record and a No. 2 final AP Poll ranking after defeating Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.
2010 - #5 Oregon
ASU played the Ducks tight in the first half, but turnovers doomed the Devils as Oregon won by a score of 42-31 on Sept. 25, 2010, in Tempe.
Darron Thomas threw for 260 yards and two scores for Oregon and Steven Threet passed for 387 yards and three touchdowns but four damaging interceptions for the Sun Devils. The 11-point margin was the second-closest game Oregon faced during the regular season.
Oregon entered the game 3-0 and made it through the regular season before losing to Auburn in the BCS National Championship game. The Ducks finished No. 3 in the final polls.
2008 - #3 Georgia
A game that had massive preseason hype as Georgia brought the likes of Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, A.J. Green and Justin Houston to Tempe, ASU’s momentum came to a screeching halt the week before as the Sun Devils lost in overtime to UNLV in a game that Arizona State clearly was overlooking its opponent toward the next week’s SEC adversary.
Ultimately, the Bulldogs took down the Sun Devils by a score of 27-10 on Sept. 20, 2008. Stafford threw for 285 yards and a touchdown to Green, who caught eight total passes for 159 yards as a true freshman. Moreno ran 23 times for 149 yards and two scores.
For ASU, Rudy Carpenter threw for 208 yards and a touchdown but the Sun Devil run game was only able to manage four net yards on 19 attempts.
Georgia, who entered the game with a 3-0 record, lost the next week to Alabama and then twice more during the season. The Bulldogs finished the season with a 10-3 record and a No. 13 final AP Poll ranking.
2007 – at #4 Oregon
Boasting an 8-0 record, the No. 6 Sun Devils headed to Eugene to face fellow top-10 team Oregon on Nov. 3, 2007, with the ESPN College GameDay crew on site.
Ultimately, the Ducks earned a home win by a final score of 32-23.
Dennis Dixon threw four touchdowns including two to Jaison Williams who also had 106 receiving yards on five catches. For ASU, Rudy Carpenter threw for 379 yards and two scores, while Michael Jones had four receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown.
The Ducks entered the game with a 7-1 record and Dixon seemed destined to win the Heisman Trophy, but due to injuries he suffered against the Sun Devils he would miss substantial time due to injury and Oregon would lose its next three games.
Oregon finished the season with a 9-4 record and a No. 23 final AP Poll ranking.
2006 – at #2 USC
On Oct. 14, 2006, the Sun Devils traveled to the Coliseum to face USC and after falling behind 21-0 in the first half ASU managed to tie the game at 21 in the third quarter before ultimately losing 28-21.
USC entered the game with a 5-0 record and against the Sun Devils, Chauncey Washington rushed for 108 yards and a score while John David Booty threw touchdowns to Dwayne Jarrett and Allen Bradford. For the Sun Devils, Ryan Torain scored a rushing touchdown and Zach Miller caught a touchdown pass and Keno Walter-White had a pick-six from his cornerback position.
The Trojans dropped their next game against Oregon State and later against UCLA, but won the Pac-10 title and defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl. In the end, USC finished 11-2 with a No. 4 final poll ranking.
2005 - #1 USC
The second of two massive heartbreaks against top-5 teams for the 2005 season, with ESPN’s College GameDay crew on campus for the first and only time for an ASU game, the Sun Devils relinquished a 21-3 halftime lead to lose by a score of 38-28 on Oct. 1, 2005.
USC brought its 3-0 record to face the No. 14 Sun Devils, and after the Devils dominated the first two quarters, a flurry of mistakes prevented ASU from upsetting the country’s top-ranked team.
The Trojan run game dominated the Sun Devils – especially in the second half – as Reggie Bush rushed for 158 yards and two touchdowns while LenDale White rushed for 197 yards and a score. Bush ultimately won the Heisman Trophy but years later was forced to relinquish the award. Derek Hagan caught 10 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown and Terry Richardson had an electrifying 83-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first half. ASU quarterback Sam Keller threw for 347 yards, but his five interceptions ultimately helped doom the Sun Devils.
USC would last the entire regular season undefeated and finish the year 12-1 after losing to Texas in the BCS National Championship game that proved to be one of the most exciting of all time. The Trojans finished the year ranked No. 2 in the polls.
2005 - #5 LSU
A game that was relocated from Baton Rouge to Tempe on short notice due to the impact of Hurricane Katrina, No. 15 ASU controlled the lead all game into the fourth quarter before suffering an agonizing 35-31 defeat on Sept. 10, 2005.
In what was LSU’s season opener, the Tigers blocked a field goal and a punt in the fourth quarter and returned both for touchdowns to turn a 17-7 deficit into a 21-17 lead. The two teams would go back-and-forth as ASU regained the lead, relinquished it again, then retook the lead before allowing what has become a notoriously unforgettable 39-yard touchdown pass from JaMarcus Russell to Early Doucet to give LSU a 35-31 lead with just over a minute remaining.
Russell threw for 232 yards and the touchdown to Doucet, while Joseph Addai ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns. For ASU, Sam Keller passed for 461 yards and four touchdowns, two to tight end Jamaal Lewis, one to Moey Mutz and one to Rudy Burgess.
LSU would lose its next game against Tennessee but ultimately finished the season 11-2 with a No. 6 final AP Poll ranking.
2004 – at #1 USC
ASU entered the game 5-0 on the season but met a striking dose of reality against top-ranked USC, as the No. 15 Sun Devils fell on the road by a score of 45-7 on Oct. 16, 2004.
Eventual Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart threw for 224 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for a fifth. Dwayne Jarrett caught three of Leinart’s touchdown throws and had five total receptions for 139 yards. Running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White also caught touchdown passes. For ASU, tight end Zach Miller had eight catches for 102 yards and Hakim Hill rushed for the team’s only touchdown.
The Trojans made it through the entire season unscathed, accumulating a 13-0 record and defeating Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game.
1996 - #4 Ohio State (Rose Bowl)
The heartbreak of all heartbreaks for Sun Devil fans, ASU met Ohio State on New Year’s Day 1997 in the Rose Bowl that could have given the Sun Devils a National Championship.
After Ohio State won the Big Ten Conference and ASU won its second Pac-10 Conference title, the Buckeyes brought their 10-1 record to Pasadena, Calif., to meet the 11-0 Sun Devils.
Ohio State struck first with a touchdown pass from Stanley Jackson to David Boston in the first quarter, but ASU responded in the second with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Jake Plummer to a diving Ricky Boyer to tie the game at the half.
Robert Nycz hit a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter to give ASU a 10-7 edge before Joe Germaine found Dimitrious Stanley for a 72-yard touchdown pass to allow the Buckeyes to regain the lead at 14-10.
With under two minutes left, ASU quarterback Jake Plummer snaked his way into the end zone to give ASU a 17-14 lead with 1:40 remaining. The Sun Devil defense was unable to hold up, however, as Germaine found Boston for a five-yard touchdown pass to give Ohio State a 20-17 victory with 19 seconds left.
Had ASU won, the Sun Devils would have claimed their first and only National Championship. As a result of the loss, Ohio State moved to 11-1 and finished No. 2 while Arizona State finished the year No. 4.
1996 - #1 Nebraska (W)
An unforgettable night for those who experienced it and undoubtedly the greatest regular season win in program history, on Sept. 21, 1996, the Sun Devils blanked the two-time defending national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers by a score of 19-0 in Tempe.
Beyond the once in a lifetime achievement by the Sun Devils, ASU also put to rest a number of streaks for Nebraska as the Cornhuskers had won two consecutive national titles, 26 straight games, 37 straight regular-season games and were the number one ranked team for 12 consecutive weeks.
ASU caught Nebraska by surprise with a wide open touchdown pass from Jake Plummer to Keith Poole in the first quarter. Also in the first, ASU had its first of three safeties on the night. Robert Frost added a pair of second-quarter field goals all adding up to ASU’s 19-0 victory.
Plummer threw for 292 yards with the touchdown to Poole, while Michael Martin rushed for 77 yards for the Sun Devils. Lenzie Jackson added eight receptions for 105 yards for ASU.
For Nebraska, Scott Frost was limited to just 66 passing yards on 6-of-20 attempts and star running back Ahman Green had just 87 yards on 20 carries.
ASU would go on to an undefeated regular season and Rose Bowl berth, while the Cornhuskers remained in the top-10 all year. Nebraska won nine straight before losing its regular season finale to Texas. The Cornhuskers finished with an 11-2 record and a No. 6 final poll ranking.
1995 - #5 USC
Two weeks after facing eventual national champion Nebraska, ASU played host to fifth-ranked USC. A team featuring star receiver Keyshawn Johnson, the Trojans entered the game 3-0 and blanked the Sun Devils by a score of 31-0 on Sept. 30, 1995. USC went on to finish the season with a 9-2-1 record, a No. 12 AP Poll ranking after a Rose Bowl victory over Northwestern.
1995 – at #2 Nebraska
One of the most talented teams in college football history, the Cornhuskers, guided by Heisman runner-up Tommie Frazier and a backfield featuring running backs Ahman Green and Lawrence Phillips and several other All-Americans, entered the game 1-0 and dominated the Sun Devils in Lincoln by a score of 77-28 on Sept. 16, 1995.
Nebraska finished the season undefeated with a 12-0 record and won its second consecutive national championship.
1994 - #5 Miami (Fla.)
Under the coaching of Dennis Erickson, “The U” came to Tempe after an opening week win and downed the Devils by a score of 47-10 on Sept. 10, 1994.
The 1994 Miami squad featured players such as Ray Lewis and Warren Sapp and finished the year 10-2 with a No. 6 final ranking.
1992 - #2 Washington
In the season opener, defending Coaches Poll national champion Washington traveled to Tempe and took down Arizona State by a score of 31-7 on Sept. 5, 1992.
Washington climbed to No. 1 after defeating No. 12 Nebraska in week three, but after an 8-0 start, the Huskies dropped three of their final four games including a Rose Bowl loss to Michigan. The Huskies ended the year with a 9-3 record and No. 11 final poll ranking.
The Husky offense included stars such as QB Mark Brunell, RB Napoleon Kaufman, and OL Lincoln Kennedy.
1991 – at #3 Washington
Entering the game with a 7-0 record, Washington hosted ASU on Nov. 2, 1991, and made short work of the Sun Devils with a 44-16 win.
Washington ended the season undefeated with a 12-0 record following its Rose Bowl victory over Michigan and was named national champions by the Coaches Poll. The Associated Press tabbed the Huskies as the second-best team, with Miami (Fla.) as the champions.
The Huskies featured Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy winner Steve Emtman at defensive tackle, who went on to be the first overall pick in the following NFL Draft. On offense, Mario Bailey had 62 catches for 1,037 yards and a school-record 17 touchdowns, while head coach Don James was named the FWAA National Coach of the Year.
1988 - #2 USC
USC came to Tempe with an 8-0 record to face ASU on Nov. 12, 1988, and did not suffer a setback as it had top-10 ranked UCLA on deck the next week as the Trojans decimated the Devils by a score of 50-0.
The 1988 Trojan roster included future pros such as Rodney Peete and Junior Seau and ended the season with a No. 7 AP Poll ranking. USC started the season 10-0, but then lost its final regular season game to Notre Dame and then again in the Rose Bowl to Michigan to finish with a 10-2 record.
1987 - #2 Nebraska
After wins the first two weeks – including a week two win over third-ranked UCLA – Nebraska came to Tempe and survived with a 35-28 victory over the No. 12 Sun Devils on Sept. 26, 1987.
Nebraska that year featured First-Team All-Americans in OL John McCormick, DL Neil Smith, QB Steve Taylor and DE Broderick Thomas and finished the season 10-2 and with a No. 6 final poll ranking.
1986 - #4 Michigan (Rose Bowl) (W)
A game that was the goal from the point ASU entered the Pac-10 Conference the previous decade and a win that proved the Sun Devils truly could compete with the nation’s elite, Arizona State, following its first outright Pac-10 title, defeated Michigan by a score of 22-15 on New Year’s Day 1987.
Guided by current Wolverine head coach Jim Harbaugh, Michigan entered the game with an 11-1 record as the Big Ten Conference champions facing the 8-1-1, seventh-ranked Sun Devils.
ASU trailed 8-0 in the first quarter and 15-13 at the half, but a Bruce Hill third-quarter touchdown and a fourth-quarter Kent Bostrom field goal gave the Sun Devils their landmark victory in Pasadena.
1980 – at #4 USC
One week after playing second-ranked Ohio State, ASU traveled to play the Trojans on Oct. 4, 1980, with a 3-0 record and edged the Sun Devils by a score of 23-21 in a grudge match from ASU’s win two years earlier as the two teams did not play in 1979.
USC, guided by the likes of Marcus Allen and Ronnie Lott, went on to an 8-2-1 record and a No. 11 final AP Poll ranking
1980 – at #2 Ohio State
Entering the game 2-0 on the year, Ohio State hosted No. 20 Arizona State and defeated the Sun Devils by a score of 38-21 on Sept. 27, 1980.
The next week, the Buckeyes suffered a loss against No. 11 UCLA and would end the season 9-3 with a No. 15 final ranking and a Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State.
1978 - #2 USC (W)
In a game that marked ASU’s true arrival into the national landscape of the Pac-10 Conference, the Sun Devils upset the Trojans in the Tempe by a score of 20-7 on Oct. 14, 1978, in the first ever Pac-10 game played at Sun Devil Stadium.
Quarterback Mark Malone guided the Sun Devils, who entered the game with a 4-1 overall record in their debut season as a member of the Pac-10 Conference.
The Trojans, headlined by Heisman Trophy winner Charles White, entered the game 4-0, including a win over top-ranked Alabama earlier in the season. The loss to ASU marked the only blemish on the USC slate for 1978, as the Trojans finished 12-1, beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl and finished as the Coaches Poll national champion and second in the AP Poll.