Sun Devils inch closer to title hopes with win

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It seemed fitting Arizona State sealed its 30-17 win over Oregon State with an interception.
Late in the fourth quarter, ASU senior cornerback Robert Nelson read OSU junior quarterback Sean Mannion's eyes, jumped in front of the pass, intercepted it and took it 23 yards for a touchdown to give the Sun Devils a 20 point lead and enough cushion to close out the game.
Mannion had thrown six picks coming into the game and Saturday night the ASU defense intercepted him four times at Sun Devil Stadium. The ASU special teams added on one more fumble recovery on a muffed punt to have a total of five turnovers and it was the difference in the game.
ASU coach Todd Graham said after the Washington game, he liked how his team was in control of its destiny with regard to its goal by winning a Pac-12 South title.
Three wins later and ASU has a record of 8-2 overall and 6-1 in league play, including an undefeated record in the South. ASU not only has the title within its grasp, but it is also its to lose. It all comes down to next week's game at UCLA, which is also 8-2. Win, and ASU clinches. Lose, and it'll have to beat Arizona and hope USC knocks off UCLA in the final regular season weekend.
In the locker room after the game, Graham congratulated his players on the win and told them to put it behind them and focus on the next week's game.
"I said, 'Hey, you've worked your whole life. Some of you have been here five years for the opportunity and you've got three practices and 60 minutes. One more win and we've won the Pac-12 South championship and we're going to the Pac-12 Championship game,'" Graham said.
The reason ASU has a chance to compete for the South is because of its defense's performance against OSU.
Besides the pick sick late in the game, Nelson had another interception in the first quarter -- he now has five in a five game span -- and recovered the ball when junior wide receiver Brandin Cooks fumbled a punt return in the second quarter. In his second to last regular season game at Sun Devil Stadium, Nelson had three total turnovers along with five tackles in his most impressive performance as a Sun Devil.
"I think that was Robert's best game," Graham said. "He's been clutch for us. When he sees the ball come out of the quarterback's hand he is really gifted. It's our job to put him in positions to do that. He has been invaluable…I thought he was the MVP tonight."
Nelson was not the only one responsible for taking the ball away from the OSU offense. Junior safety Damarious Randall and senior safety Alden Darby also intercepted a pass from Mannion.
Nelson gave credit to the defensive front for putting pressure on Mannion and causing him to make bad decisions and inaccurate throws.
Graham's defenses have always had an attacking mentality. But in the game against OSU, Graham went against his natural convictions because of how good the Beavers were at counter-attacking pressure.
He said the game plan was to no more than four defenders at the max and drop back seven to cover the OSU receivers.
"We did a lot of disguise too tonight; we showed pressure a lot and we only rushed three which is almost a sin for me to only rush three," Graham said. "We had a good plan and we got really good players executing it. So because we were playing so much coverage I think that's why you see so many more of the interceptions and the takeaways."
It makes sense Graham would drop a lot of defensive players in coverage against OSU. The main concern of any defense facing OSU would be receiver Brandin Cooks. Graham said the defense had bracketed coverage on him all night and gave credit to Nelson for playing solid man coverage on Cooks for most of the game.
With all the extra attention, Cooks finished the game with nine catches for 99 yards. It was actually junior tight end Connor Hamlett who was the most effective receiver for OSU. He grabbed nine passes for 119 yards and caught one touchdown pass.
Graham said he was content with some OSU tight ends and other receivers besides Cooks getting some big receiving plays because the focus was containing Cooks.
It was necessary for ASU's defense and special teams to force five turnovers because its offense struggled for the second straight week.
Just like against Utah a week ago, however, that did not appear the case at the start of the game.
The first drive of game, ASU's offense looked like it was poised for another 40-point performance in Sun Devil Stadium. Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly went 4-4 with 66 yards passing all to sophomore Jaelen Strong and the drive ended in a 1-yard touchdown run by senior running back Marion Grice.
Kelly completed all four of his throws on the drive -- all to Strong -- but was just 18 of 33 the rest of the way with two interceptions. Strong only had three more catches the rest of the game but still went over the 100-yard receiving mark with 106.
Kelly finished 22 of 37 for 183 yards with no touchdowns and the two turnovers.
"We moved the ball the part of the game, the first couple drives but they kind of got us on the third down conversions and we couldn't keep going," Kelly said. "Whether it was a little miss read or a sack or fourth and short, they did a great job defensively. They're a great team defensively."
Since Kelly wasn't having his typical home performance, ASU relied on Grice and the running game to carry the load. Grice finished with 118 yards on 24 carries and added another rushing touchdown in the second quarter.
After scoring two touchdowns Saturday, Grice's season total is 20. Only two other Sun Devils crossed the goal line 20 times in one season. Running back Terry Battle scored 20 touchdowns in 1996 when ASU played in the Rose Bowl and Wilford "Whizzer" White set the school record of 22 touchdowns in 1950. That looks very much in jeopardy now.
With the offense out of sync Kelly said it was reassuring he could count on his defense.
"We have a great defense, everywhere," Kelly said. "Guys are playing at a high level. They're playing as one unit and that's really scary for other teams."
The ASU defense held the Beavers to only three points in the first half. In the third quarter the OSU offense finally showed some life.
The Beavers' offense took the field about halfway through the third quarter and put together a 12-play, 96-yard drive which ended with 10-yard touchdown pass from Mannion to sophomore tight end Caleb Smith to cut the ASU lead to 10 points.
Besides Nelson's interception, the play of the game came on the Beavers' next offense drive.
The ASU offense continued to be stagnate toward the end third and punted the ball back to the Beavers in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter.
The OSU offense continued its momentum from the previous touchdown drive and marched all the way down to the ASU 11-yard line. It was third down and one and OSU junior Terron Ward took the hand-off only to be dropped for a 5-yard loss by Randall.
The ball was then spotted at the ASU 16-yard line, but the influential moment happened after the play. OSU sophomore center Isaac Seumalo shoved ASU senior defensive tackle Will Sutton after the play and Seumalo was called for 15-yard personal foul.
After the penalty was assessed, the ball was back to the ASU 31-yard line. Instead of any easy chip shot for OSU junior kicker Trevor Romaine, he had to attempt a 48-yard kick. On the field goal attempt, ASU senior defensive tackle Davon Coleman reached his arm up and blocked the attempt to conserve ASU's 10-point lead at the time.
If Seumalo did not commit a personal foul, the Beavers also could have attempted a 6-yard fourth down conversion.
After the game, Graham made it clear he was not going to do the cliché coaching tactic and treat the game against UCLA next week as just another date on the schedule.
He knows the importance of the game and explained it to his players.
"It's a big game," Graham said. "I just tell them like it is, man. Everything we've worked for is in the 60 minutes this week. So, ain't just any game. I think you should be truthful with them. I'm excited for about it. I'm ready to get in there and get to work on it."