Arizona State stared adversity square in the face last Saturday and didn't blink.
After steamrolling three straight opponents by the combined score of 162-58, scoring 53 or more points on each occasion, the Sun Devils found themselves trailing Utah, 19-7, early in the fourth quarter in Salt Lake City Saturday night.
However, a pair of fourth quarter scoring drives capped by a 2-yard touchdown run by quarterback Taylor Kelly and a 14-yard scoring pass from Kelly to Richard Smith with 2:37 remaining, together with a pair of late interceptions, boosted Arizona State (7-2 overall, 5-1 in Pac-12) to a dramatic 20-19 victory over Utah.
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The hard-fought road win maintained the Sun Devils' lofty first-place spot in the Pac-12 South standings by one game over UCLA and USC, both of whom are 4-2 within the conference, and kept Arizona State in control of its own destiny in the battle to face the Pac-12 North winner (probably Stanford) in the conference championship game on December 7.
"It was a great way to win for our team to come together," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said about the Utah win earlier this week. "Every week in this conference you've got to bring it. Offensively, we had been cruising and had played really well. We didn't panic and showed poise under fire to win a close game down the stretch."
A colossal, potential division-deciding clash with UCLA in Los Angeles awaits on November 23, but first things first as Oregon State comes to the desert for a critical Saturday night matchup (6:30 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Network) important not just in the divisional and conference standings but the bowl picture as well.
Beating the Beavers and Bruins would secure the Pac-12 South title for Arizona State ahead of the season-ending rivalry game against Arizona in Tempe on Nov. 30.
Since a three-point loss (37-34) to Notre Dame on October 5 in Dallas, Tex., Arizona State has won four straight games and enters Saturday night's Week 12 contest against the Beavers as the hottest team in the Pac-12, literally and figuratively.
The Sun Devils pitchforked Colorado (54-13), Washington (53-24) and Washington State (55-21) within a span of 19 days by piling up 558 average yards of total offense in the three runaway victories until barely squeaking past Utah, rising to No. 19 in the latest BCS standings, six spots behind UCLA even though Arizona State leads the Bruins in the divisional race.
Make no mistake, Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham understandably has his eye on the prize: a Pac-12 championship in his second year as head coach. Which means the chances of Arizona State overlooking Oregon State are virtually nil.
Unquestionably, the stakes are high.
"Our goal is to win the next four games and then the Rose Bowl," Graham said. "That's going to be a tall order. We have to win close games. We couldn't have won (the Utah game) in a better fashion by coming from behind and doing it the way we did. Right now, we're three steps away from where we want to be, playing for the (Pac-12) championship."
ASU Quarterback Taylor Kelly is pushing Oregon's Marcus Mariota as perhaps the top dual threat quarterback in the Pac-12, and one of the very best in the nation.
Kelly is completing 62.8 percent (214-of-341) of his passes for 2,655 yards and 24 touchdowns with 8 interceptions. He is also Arizona State's second leading rusher with 306 yards on 84 carries, scoring seven touchdowns on the ground.
Kelly has accounted for 31 touchdowns so far in 2013.
"He is the leader of our team,' Graham said. "Taylor is one of the most respected people in this building just because of how he works. He is close to having a mastery of what we're doing. He's almost like having an offensive coordinator on the field. He understands the strengths and weaknesses of what we are doing."
Kelly is supported by running back Marion Grice (783 rushing yards on 149 carries) and a wide receiver corps featuring three pass catchers with 39 or more receptions - Jaelen Strong (52 receptions), D.J. Foster (48) and Grice (39).
Over the last four games, ASU is averaging
255.6 yards per game on the ground compared to just 69.4 ypg for the opponents, a difference of 186.2 rushing yards per game.
Grice is the only player in Division I (FBS) that has logged over 300 yards in rushing, receiving and kickoff returns this season. In addition to his 783 rushing yards, he has amassed 353 receiving yards and 381 yards on kickoff returns for a combined total of 1,517 all-purpose yards. His average of 168.6 all-purpose yards per game ranks ninth nationally.
Grice has posted 11 straight games with over 100 all-purpose yards, the fourth longest current active streak in Division I. He accumulated 219 all-purpose yards in last Saturday's one-point comeback win at Utah. He has scored 24 touchdowns in his last 12 games dating back to last season, so he has a keen sense for the end zone.
As productive as the Sun Devils have been on offense, the most enthralling matchup on Saturday night could be Oregon State's pass-happy offense with quarterback Sean Mannion and wide receiver Brandin Cooks dueling Arizona State's suffocating pass defense.
"Just watching (Cooks) on film, he is one of the great players in this league," Graham said. "Personally, going against him, he is the most explosive player in our conference because he can do so much. He runs the ball on the speed sweeps, he's lethal on screens and reverses and he's very effective in their intermediate passing game and he'll burn you deep. He runs unbelievable routes. He's the most versatile player we've faced."
Mannion, the nation's leader in passing yards per game (393.3 ypg) and total passing yards (3,540), will try to throw against the Pac-12's best passing defense. The Sun Devils are allowing only 206.4 yards per game through the air, but will certainly be tested by the conference's most productive quarterback-wide receiver duo in Mannion and Cooks.
Arizona State leads the Pac-12 in total defense (332.7 ypg) and opposing quarterbacks are completing just 51.1 percent (145-of-284) of their passes against the Sun Devils. They've allowed 15 touchdown passes, but have 13 interceptions, matching Oregon and Utah for second most in the Pac-12.
"Our guys can really cover," Graham said. "Our coverage is pretty good. It's pretty solid, to be honest with you. In a lot of the games we've had here of late, we've impacted the quarterback, but most of that has been our outstanding coverage. It's maturity and fundamentals. We have a system that's designed for their skills. We play a lot of bump coverage with our corners. We were pretty good last year, but I think we're now one of the top pass defenses in the country. We're a lot better this year, or even four weeks ago."
In the four-game winning streak, Arizona State has held opponents to an average of 95.2 fewer passing yards than what they were averaging prior to facing ASU and 187.4 fewer total offense yards than what teams were averaging prior to taking on the Sun Devils.
The Sun Devils are one of only five teams nationally to rank in the top-20 in both total offense and total defense this season, joining Florida State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Baylor in that elite group.