TEMPE, Ariz. — Over the past week leading up to a big non-conference clash with Arizona State, the stat of the Sun Devils holding a 9-0 record against Big Ten foes in Sun Devil Stadium has been beaten to a pulp.
Several times throughout the night, the Spartans looked determined to end that lowly streak for the Big Ten, but the Sun Devils, in Herm Edwards’ second game as head coach, made sure that impressive streak stayed in tact.
After trailing 3-0 at the half with not much offense to show for, three-year starter Manny Wilkins led the Sun Devils to 16 second-half points, coming from behind to knock off the Spartans 16-13 on a last-second field goal.
“What a difference a few inches makes,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “You gotta take both ends of the stick. It’s disappointing how we lost, but you’ve gotta give them credit and look at how we played things.”
With 102-degree weather at kickoff, offensive firepower in the dry desert heat wasn’t to be expected. ASU had several chances in the first half to find the end zone, but some big misfires from Wilkins kept the Sun Devils scoreless at the half.
MSU found itself offensively in the second quarter, opening up the frame with a 13-play, 80-yard drive, lasting over 7:30 minutes. After a delay of game penalty stalled out a red zone visit, the Spartans had to settle for a 37-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin to break open the scoring.
The Sun Devils finally got on the board in the third quarter, with Lou Groza Award watchlist kicker Brandon Ruiz drilling a 49-yard field goal, capping a seven-play, 44-yard drive. Wilkins had a crucial 14-yard scamper on 3rd-down to keep ASU remotely in field goal range.
In a 3-point contest for much of the third quarter, the Spartans found the end zone for the first time all night, when Cody White made a big-time 34-yard touchdown grab, from an NFL-caliber throw from Brian Lewerke, tossing it off his back leg.
ASU responded quickly, marching 70 yards in eight plays before stalling out in the red zone from the Spartans’ 7-yard line, setting for a 24-yard Ruiz field goal. Josh Butler, playing in place of an injured Josiah Scott, had some big plays in coverage against an underrated WR unit after getting picked on quite a bit against Utah State.
The Spartan defensive line ran out of gas for much of the second half, and Arizona State capitalized on it. After several crucial misfires all night, Wilkins finally connected with his Biletnikoff Award watchlist WR N’Keal Harry, who hauled in an effortless 27-yard TD grab. Harry finished the night with six catches for 89 yards.
“They came up with some catches and just made some plays,” senior safety Khari Willis said of ASU’s passing game, which tallied 380 yards. “It’s just about manning up and taking on the challenge.”
Aside from the White third-quarter score, MSU’s offense sputtered out, mustering just 207 yards in the half. White was the real bright spot for the offense, finishing the night with 113 yards on nine catches. MSU’s red zone woes continued Saturday night, finding the end zone just once when inside the 20-yard line.
“It’s definitely something that needs to be fixed,” Lewerke said of his team’s stubborn red zone struggles. “It’s something that has to get fixed. It’s just us executing the play and not getting penalties in those situations.”
When asked if the heat played an issue in the Spartans’ second-half offensive struggles, Dantonio said the heat didn’t have much of an impact. “I think we were really well-conditioned so I don’t think the heat played any factor in that.”
A pass interference penalty and a whole lot of tailback Eno Benjamin capped off the game-winning drive for the Sun Devils, a drive which lasted 4:55, spanning 69 yards in 13 plays before Ruiz buried the 28-yarder dagger at the horn.
The Sun Devils improve to 2-0 and should be legit contenders in the Pac-12 South while the Spartans drop to 1-1 on the year. ASU heads to San Diego State next week while MSU heads into a much-needed bye week before hitting the road in a challenging road test at Indiana.
“We just gotta keep pushing to get better and better and making sure that we’re coming together,” White said about the team moving past the early loss. “I feel like we’re gonna be alright.”