The Arizona State football team was exactly where it wanted to be.
With 3:16 left, its defense stood on the south side of the football, 81 yards from the goal line. All it had to do was get one more stop.
To the north gathered the Cal offense, which hadn't scored a touchdown in 10 tries. Its robust running attack had been bottled up by the Sun Devils, but quarterback Kevin Riley had racked up nearly 300 yards through the air.
Turns out, he had a few more yards saved up in that right arm of his.
When it mattered most, Riley orchestrated a masterful dissection of the ASU secondary, leading his team to a last-minute 23-21 victory in Tempe.
"As a defense you obviously want that situation," ASU senior linebacker Mike Nixon said. "Despite what happened earlier in the game, there's three minutes left and we had the lead. I really feel like, as a defense, we let this team down tonight."
Riley exploited ASU's pass coverage during the game-winning march, which ended in a 24-yard field goal with 21 seconds left.
During the drive, Cal's receivers were able to find all sorts of open space, especially down the left seam. Riley went 5-of-6 for 85 yards on the series, gaining a first down on each of his completions. He even erased a first-and-25 with a 26-yard pass.
"It's kind of like a broken record, [but hopefully] we can see the film and correct it," Nixon said.
True to football's cruel nature, Cal's final field goal rendered all of ASU's hard work useless. Despite suffering injuries and falling in an early 14-0 hole, the Sun Devils led 21-20 for most of the fourth quarter.
Had they converted a first down with nearly three minutes to go, though, the Sun Devils never would have had to punt. Alas, they came up a yard short.
Had freshman linebacker Vontaze Burfict grabbed an interception in the game's final minute, the Sun Devils never would have seen the ball sail through the uprights. Alas, it barely escaped his grasp.
"Mentally, they're drained," Erickson said of his players. "We're all drained."
After allowing a pair of first-quarter touchdowns, the Sun Devils clamped down on defense, as Cal was only able to knock through a pair of field goals until the final drive. The Golden Bears gained 57 yards on the ground, despite featuring a backfield tandem of Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen.
ASU senior quarterback Danny Sullivan did his part, putting his team in a position to win despite suffering key injuries along the way.
Already without senior wide receiver Kerry Taylor, the offense lost sophomore wide receiver T.J. Simpson in the first quarter to a high ankle sprain. Senior wide receiver Kyle Williams and sophomore Gerell Robinson also appeared to tweak their hamstrings, but played through the game.
ASU adjusted by running more two-tight-end sets and putting Sullivan under center rather than in the shotgun.
Senior running back Dimitri Nance was also taken out of the game in the first quarter after aggravating his shoulder injury. As a result, sophomore running back Ryan Bass got his wish and received a bulk of the carries. That was until he fumbled the ball on the goal line in the second quarter.
Bass never saw the field after that, as freshman Cameron Marshall took over. Marshall finished with 71 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
"I thought [Marshall] played very well for a young kid," Erickson said. "He made some really good runs. He's a tough runner and he's going to get better and better all the time."
After Bass fumbled, Riley gave it right back to ASU at the 3-yard line with a fumble of his own. Sophomore quarterback Samson Szakacsy recorded his first career touchdown throw, connecting with senior tight end Jovon Williams on a roll out to the left.
ASU evened the score when Sullivan found a wide-open Williams for an 80-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Marshall gave his team a 21-20 lead with a 6-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.