ASU shows grit, eyes South crown

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
5:30
PM ET
Sometimes winning ugly is better. Every ranked team wins pretty. But the highly ranked teams, the ones in position to win championships, win even when things aren't going well. They win when it looks like they are about to lose and opposing fans are doing their best to quash their will.

Arizona State has won pretty plenty this year. In fact, the average score of the Sun Devils three games before their trip to Utah was 54-19.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
AP Photo/Rick BowmerThe improvement of QB Taylor Kelly is a big reason ASU sits atop its division.
But things didn't go well against the Utes. They were down 19-7 in the fourth quarter. Their high-octane offense -- coach Todd Graham's favorite term -- was running on AAA batteries.

According to ESPN's win probability model, Arizona State had a 7.1% chance of winning at the end of the third quarter. Entering this weekend, only 17 FBS teams have come back to win after having a win probability of 7.1% or lower.

That's what makes the Sun Devils inspired fourth-quarter play on the road so much more impressive. Not only did the defense dominate, quarterback Taylor Kelly and the offense forced their way into some rhythm with a pair of decisive touchdown drives.

The 20-19 victory might have been the sweetest of the season for a team that owns a one-game lead in the Pac-12's South Division and controls its own Rose Bowl destiny.

Winning ugly reveals a team's character. And it also perks it up to rediscover its winning pretty formula.

"I couldn't have scripted it better," Graham said. "It was the perfect way to win at this point. Our guys had a different sense of urgency about how they were working in practice."

Said Kelly, "It feels good that when adversity strikes in a game, as a team, we stuck with each other and regrouped. I never thought we were going to lose that game."

The Sun Devils next test is not letting up while the screws tighten. Oregon State is coming to Tempe coming off a bye week and having beaten the Sun Devils in four of their last five meetings.

Arizona State, at 7-2, 5-1, is 19th in the BCS standings but it might deserve a higher ranking based on what it has done against a rugged schedule. The Sun Devils are 10th in ESPN.com Stats & Information's "Championship Drive Rating," a complex metric that reveals the strength of a team's overall resume. The Sun Devils have gone 3-2 against top-50 teams.

Despite a tough schedule, Arizona State is among the Pac-12's statistical leaders on both sides of the ball, and it owns the fourth quarter, outscoring foes 105-59.

A lot of that is due to Kelly, who ranks 11th in the nation ESPN.com's total quarterback rating. He has grown from solid as a first year starter to a potential all-conference player.

"He's a ball player," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "He runs the offense well. He runs well. He's a good athlete. It's been interesting to see his growth as a player. He's got real good command of what they do."

Obviously, the Sun Devils claim -- as all teams do -- to be playing the ole one game at a time. And there's no question overlooking the Beavers and their potent passing attack would be a significant mistake.

That said, the players are well aware of the big picture stakes. They know that pretty much every preseason goal, other than a national championship, remains within reach.

"Guys can feel the big picture," Kelly said. "We can sense it. We feel like we have a championship team. But we do only talk about one game at a time. Oregon State is a great team. But we can definitely sense that Pac-12 championship game and Rose Bowl."

The good news is the Sun Devils can get their winning ugly or pretty. They've now proven the can do both.

Ted Miller | email

College Football

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