Arizona State An Unlikely Playoff Contender

Heading into the 2014 season, the Arizona State Sun Devils had a ton of questions surrounding the football team, particularly on defense. Yet somehow, they’ve managed to put themselves in control of their own destiny for a berth into the College Football Playoff in mid-November.

How have they done it? With a little bit of everything.

You look at the Sun Devils’ numbers, and nothing really jumps out at you. Sure, they’re 25th in the country in total offense, but that’s right in the middle of the Pac-12. 63rd in the country in total defense puts them third in the conference in that category. Scoring offense (36.7 – 19th) and scoring defense (24.9 – 50th) have been good but not great.

The defensive numbers though are way better than what anyone outside of the program could have hoped for.

Arizona State lost basically its entire starting defense from last season. From star lineman Will Sutton, right through playmaker Alden Darby, head coach Todd Graham and new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson were essentially starting over.

A lot of people’s impression of ASU’s defense before this past weekend was probably not that strong, given that UCLA torched them on a Thursday night ESPN game at the end of September. The Bruins put up 62 points and 580 yards of total offense in that game. To be fair to ASU though, the Sun Devils had twice as many first downs as UCLA that night (38-19), put up more yards (626), and that’s with a quarterback who was making his first career start in Mike Bercovici.

The week after that, ASU got a little lucky winning on a Hail Mary against USC. But that play, now known locally as the “Jael Mary”, since it was caught by stud receiver Jaelen Strong, has catapulted the team to an entirely new level of football.

The last four weeks, the Sun Devils have only given up more than 16 points once (last week vs. Notre Dame). In matchups against schools that were supposed to be the top defensive teams in the league (Stanford and Utah), the ASU defense has been superior. In fact, they’ve only given up more than 28 points three times this season (UCLA, USC, Notre Dame). It’s kind of amazing to see that from this team.

Another reason why ASU’s success this season has been so shocking is they were forced to play three and a half games without starting quarterback Taylor Kelly. Kelly suffered a foot injury halfway through the game against Colorado. Arizona State was unable to score in the fourth quarter of that game with Bercovici behind center.

But after that, Bercovici proved to be more than just a serviceable backup. Even in the UCLA loss, the junior quarterback still put up 488 passing yards and three touchdowns. The next week against USC, he had 510 yards on just 27 completions. Add to that five touchdown passes, including the Hail Mary pass to Jaelen Strong.

After that game, ASU had somewhat of a quarterback controversy. Bercovici had shown that he is the better pure-passer than Taylor Kelly. But there was no way Kelly was going to lose his starting job during his senior season because of an injury.

After a bye week, Stanford rolled into Tempe, and Bercovici was still at quarterback even though Kelly had practiced some that week. But the defense was the story of that game. The Cardinal was only able to get 288 yards of total offense that night. Of course Bercovici came back down to earth a little bit as well, simply because he was playing Stanford. 245 yards and a touchdown that night for the ASU quarterback.

But that paved the way for Kelly’s return when the team traveled to Seattle to take on Washington. Again, ASU’s defense was the difference, allowing just ten points for the second-straight week. The Huskies were only able to gain 290 yards, and a late pick-six by Armand Perry gave the Sun Devils a more visually-appealing 24-10 victory.

With all the chaos happening in the Pac-12, particularly in the South division, the game against Utah wound up being a battle for first place, and the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat in the division. Of course it went to overtime, and of course it came down to the Utes kicker, who had been great all season, missing a field goal in overtime. Because that’s how the Pac-12 works.

But that was a game featuring the two best defenses in the South, and it did not disappoint. Even with an overtime, the final score was 19-16. There were two touchdowns scored in that entire game, and none in the final 26 minutes plus the one overtime period. The one ASU touchdown? A Taylor Kelly pass to Jaelen Strong. Strong is currently eighth in the country with nine touchdown catches this season; he’s 13th nationally with his 879 receiving yards.

And then this Notre Dame game, which has bumped ASU all the way up No. 6 in the College Football Playoff Rankings. This is a Notre Dame team that went into Florida State, and arguably should have won that game if not for a controversial offensive pass interference call.

That Notre Dame team, with the exception of a ten minute stretch where they scored 28 points, got absolutely dominated on both sides of the ball by Arizona State. The numbers don’t bare it out now because of the huge successes the Irish passing game had for those ten minutes, but make no mistake, the Sun Devils were easily the better team on the field that day.

It truly is amazing what this team has been able to do in 2014, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Most people around the country probably won’t notice anything strange going on here. After all, this was a team that was hosting the Pac-12 Championship Game last year after winning the regular-season championship. But make no mistake about it. This is shocking. If Arizona State wins out, it will find itself playing for a National Championship. Two “easy” games are up next against Oregon State and Washington State, followed by what could be the most meaningful Territorial Cup matchup against the Arizona Wildcats in the history of the rivalry. That game is in Tucson, the Friday after Thanksgiving.

If ASU wins all those games? A date with the Oregon Ducks in Santa Clara. Essentially a National Championship quarterfinal game. The interesting part about a de facto quarterfinal game for Arizona State? Todd Graham has been campaigning for an eight-team playoff this season.

He may get it, as long as the Sun Devil defense keeps taking care of its business.

*Section Photo credit to Ronald Martinez, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Kirby Lee, USA Today Sports

Ohio State’s Playoff Chances
Ohio State’s Playoff Chances