ASU vs. UCLA: What We Learned on Saturday


Nov 23, 2013; Pasadena, CA, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils wide receiver Alante Wright (83) and Arizona State Sun Devils wide receiver Jaelen Strong (21) celebrate as time runs out in the Sun Devils win over the UCLA Bruins at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

It was one for the ages. Arizona State’s heroic 38-33 win over UCLA on Saturday night will certainly go down in Sun Devil lore as one of the biggest victories in school history. The game marked ASU’s official return to the ranks of the Pac-12 Conference’s elite programs.

No. 17 Arizona State improved to 9-2 and 7-1, the team’s highest win total in six years. It will play Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

In the defeat of the Bruins — two-time defending Pac-12 South Champion — we learned a lot about this year’s Sun Devils:

Taylor Kelly can win the big game

All week long, college football pundits praised the development of UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley. And for good reason. Hundley is a unique talent, possessing a lethal combination of running and passing abilities packaged in a 6’3”/222 frame.

The media, however, continued to talk about ASU QB Taylor Kelly as a “surprising starter” who somehow ascended the ASU depth chart to earn the top signal caller job.

On Saturday, Kelly opened at lot of eyes. He also silenced some persistent doubters, who questioned his ability to secure a big win on the road. The Eagle, Idaho, native guided his team with the cunning of an executioner, and the serenity of a brain surgeon. He passed for 225 yards and rushed for 99 more.

Kelly’s masterful direction of the ASU offense kept drives alive and put 35 points on the board in the first half alone against a stout UCLA defense. Kelly also avoided game-changing turnovers; indeed, he was the face of Sun Devil resolve to gain a win in this critical match-up.

Well done, Taylor, well done.

Will Sutton has embraced his leadership role

All during the summer, ASU coaches urged their star defensive tackle, Will Sutton, to assume a greater leadership role on this year’s squad. Sutton had always been a reserved, self-motivated force on the Devils’ defensive line.

Against the Bruins, Sutton came out of his shell, functioning almost like a player-coach. He prowled the ASU sideline, extolling his teammates to rise to the occasion and providing encouragement wherever it was needed. He even led the pre-halftime team gathering — normally head coach Todd Graham’s duty — raving with the zeal of a Sun Devil evangelist.

Sutton’s active leadership, along with his solid on-field performance, were key to ASU’s defensive stands in the late moments of this important contest.

Chris Young is an underrated defensive star

After his outing against UCLA, the entire Pac-12 will come to know Chris Young. The senior linebacker and four-star high school recruit originally committed to play for Washington but never became a Husky due to academic issues. Young instead played junior college ball at Arizona Western before transferring to ASU last year.

Young emerged as crucial component of the Sun Devil defense in 2012. He collected 8.5 tackles-for-loss in his first four games, and finished the season with 82 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and one interception.

In 2013, Young has shown his versatility by assuming a variety of responsibilities within the ASU line backing corps. Coaches and teammates alike have praised him for his hard work, dedication and hustle.

Late in the fourth quarter in Pasadena, Young turned the tide of the game against UCLA, sacking Hundley on third down from the ASU seven-yard line. The Bruins were forced to try a field goal, which was unsuccessful. This play dealt a devastating blow to UCLA’s hopes of a comeback win.

Todd Graham is the real deal

When Todd Graham arrived in Tempe, Arizona, amidst the controversy of his departure from the University of Pittsburgh head-coaching job, critics called him an unproven opportunist. In their view, Graham wasn’t ready for primetime and would wither under the pressure of Pac-12-level competition.

Fast forward to 2013, and Graham has silenced all but the most hardcore skeptics. He has revitalized an under-achieving Sun Devil football program, which suffered from years of malaise. The win over UCLA — another important step in the rebuilding process at ASU — showed that Graham is one of the best coaches in the Pac-12 Conference and the nation.