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November 24, 2013

ASU holds off UCLA to win Pac-12 South



PASADENA -- Arizona State coach Todd Graham was shaking with emotion.

Following his team's huge win over No. 14 UCLA, as Graham stood and spoke about the heart and determination his players competed with to win, he was standing in a press conference room in front of a wall covered with Rose Bowl Stadium logos.

It seemed only fitting.

The red roses behind Graham were a subtle symbol of the win's importance to the team's overall goal of the season. With the 38-33 victory, ASU earned its place in the Pac-12 Championship game as South division champions and has a chance to return to here to play in the same stadium on New Year's Day.

"I've cried twice and you all know I'm not much of a crier," Graham said. "I had tears coming down my face because it's not just about winning the Pac-12 South Championship. We set out to win the Pac-12 Championship and this is an essential part. To watch these kids on that field lay it on the line with that kind of heart was overwhelming to me."

The win made ASU, at 9-2 overall and 7-1 in Pac-12 play, the lone team in the conference with just one loss after Arizona knocked off Oregon in Tucson earlier Saturday. It ensured that ASU will play Stanford in the Pac-12 title game, though the location remains undetermined. If ASU beats Arizona Saturday in Tempe, it will host the game. If it loses, it will travel again to Palo Alto, Calif., where it lost to the Cardinal 42-28 on Sept. 21.

ASU certainly wouldn't be in this position if not for senior linebacker Chris Young.

ASU left the back door open for UCLA to sneak in and steal a win in the second half. Young shut the door on UCLA in the fourth quarter and ended its hopes of a comeback.

With 5:18 left in the game, ASU was clinging to a five point lead. UCLA had the ball on the ASU 7-yard line. It was third down and six yards to go. All the past memories of ASU losing late to UCLA started to surface.

UCLA sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley dropped back, rolled to his right. Young rushed toward Hundley, wrapped his arms around his lower half and pulled the 6-foot-3, 222 pound quarterback to the ground for a 13-yard loss. UCLA decided to take the points and kicked a field goal attempt but then sophomore kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn's kick was no good.

"Coming down to the end, every play is important," Young said. "Obviously that sack just snowballed into everybody else making their plays as well."

The game was not over.

After the missed field goal, ASU got the ball at its own 20-yard line with a chance to run out the 4:38 left on the clock.

After key injuries to both senior running back Marion Grice and senior center Kody Koebensky during the possession, ASU only achieved one first down.

During the drive UCLA used its two remaining timeouts and ASU was forced to punt after it could not convert on a third-and-five.

The two timeouts helped UCLA and it got the ball at the ASU 35-yard line with 3:21 left in the game. UCLA had one more chance to score.

It was up to ASU's defense to stop the Bruins' last attempt at a touchdown with the time winding down, something it couldn't do in 2012, when it tried to stop Hundley before he could get the team into field goal range. A year ago, the game ended with Fairbairn kicking a 33-yard game winning field goal in Sun Devil Stadium.

ASU's defense needed a player to step up and again it was Young.

On the first play of the drive, Hundley dropped back and was sacked again by Young for a loss of seven yards. UCLA battled back to gain a first down but after two straight holding penalties the Bruins found themselves in a first down and 30 situation.

After two incompletions and a sack by senior defensive tackle Davon Coleman -- one of his 2.5 on the night -- UCLA faced a fourth-and-35 with time ticking down. There was the hint of 2011 in the air, when UCLA converted on a third-and-29 which led to a its go-ahead score at the Rose Bowl with 0:49 remaining in the Bruin win.

On fourth and a mile, Hundley completed a pass to sophomore receiver Jordan Payton. Payton shook off a couple ASU tackles and it appeared as thought he might burst free for a shot at the first down.

Instead, after gaining 16-yards an ASU defender brought him to the ground and ended the game once and for all.

That player was none other than Young. His last tackle ended a career night for the senior as he finished with 13 total tackles and three sacks.

"Chris Young, wow," Graham said afterwards. "I don't know how many plays he made, but a lot."

This year, the ASU defensive players were not going to sit back and let the UCLA take the win from them.

"We had some regrets that we defended instead of attacked (in last year's loss)," Graham said. "So we sent it every play that last drive. Even on that last play because we come to win."

In the first half the ASU offense put up 28 points, 357 total offensive yards and had 18 first downs to help spark a remarkable 35-13 lead at halftime.

Its offense got off to a quick start mainly because of the offensive line. ASU's interior linemen, junior left guard Jamil Douglas, senior center Kody Koebensky and sophomore right guard Vi Teofilo had their best game as a unit. UCLA defensive tackles sophomore Ellis McCarthy and senior Seali'i Epenesa looked outmatched early.

Behind the ASU offensive line, Kelly and ASU's running backs, led by senior Marion Grice and a 37-yard jet sweep by sophomore receiver Richard Smith had 223 rushing yards, 208 of which came in the first half.

"Our offensive line, they do a great job of protecting myself opening holes for Marion, D.J. and Deantre," Kelly said. "I always tell them, it starts with them, it finishes with them. They're big guys and they're starting to work as a unit and it's starting to show up."

There was one main reason the Bruins were able stay within striking distance early and able to eventually close the score to within five.

Special teams.

On UCLA's first kickoff return, sophomore cornerback Ishmael Adams returned it 65-yards and it lead to UCLA's first touchdown. It was a beginning of a big night for Adams and he finished 234 total returning yards to set up the UCLA offense in prime field position all night.

Then early in the third quarter, ASU was set to punt and sophomore long snapper Easton Wahlstrom snapped it low and to the left of junior punter Alex Garoutte.

Garoutte couldn't bring the ball in and it was recovered by UCLA at the ASU 15-yard line. UCLA capitalized and scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession to cut ASU's lead to 35-27 and the game went from blowout to dogfight in a hurry.

"I started to say, heck, we'll just go for it every fourth instead of punting it because I was tired of that," Graham said in half jest.

Besides ASU's special teams' woes, there was another reason UCLA made it a close game toward the end. The Bruins came out to play in the second half and outscored ASU 20-3 in after intermission.

The ASU defense had a strong first half containing Hundley and the rest of the UCLA offense. Its pass rush took advantage of the inexperienced UCLA offensive line sacked Hundley nine times throughout the entire game.

But a player like Hundley is going to make some plays eventually. After completing just 3 of 9 passing attempts for 65 yards and one touchdown in the entire first half, he completed 15 of 17 throws in the second half, finishing with 253 yards and two touchdowns to fuel the comeback.

"You have to give credit to Hundley and his crew because they battled like champions and we knew that we were going to have to take it from them if we wanted to win, and we did," Graham said.

Another reason UCLA roared back was the fact ASU's offense was not on the field for the majority of the second half.

After moving the chains 18 times in the first half, the ASU offense only earned six first downs in the second half and had just 10 plays from scrimmage in the fourth quarter, including two punts.

"We just couldn't complete a couple third downs in that aspect," Kelly said. "UCLA they got a great coaching staff and they made some great adjustments at halftime. If we could have put a couple in on those third downs it would have been a different game."

Graham was obviously very proud of his players for clinching the South title, but he made it clear they are not done. He called the title the first step in the team's ultimate goal. ASU's first 11 games and nine victories all lead to accomplishing the first step.

The next step is the Pac-12 Championship game and the third is winning the Rose Bowl game at the end of the year. Hosting the title game would give it a much better chance of accomplishing its ultimate goal.

"The most important game of the year is next week," Graham said. "It don't matter what we've done to this point. We lose this one, unsuccessful season. That's how important this game is. Obviously it is a big deal because we would host the championship game."


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