As streaky as it may have been, 2018 was a promising start for the Herm Edwards regime. Arizona State Football was ranked, lost four of five, picked it back up and contended for a Pac-12 South title and won one perhaps the most spectacular Territorial Cup games in history, all in the same year.
All that led them to the Las Vegas Bowl, where they finished the season with an underwhelming loss to 12-1 Fresno State. Still, the Sun Devils improved all over the board, with better offensive efficiency and a much better defensive effort under new coordinator Danny Gonzales.
The season felt like it moved in waves. Four to be exact.
Riding high early
People were all over the board as far as expectations for Arizona State. Edwards is an energetic player’s coach, so perhaps they would respond well to that. On the other hand, he hadn’t had a head coaching job in over a decade. Then again, the veteran offense was in prime position to break out. But, the defensive starters were almost entirely new going up against a difficult schedule.
Many critics jumped on the “Herm Train” early on though. After dominating UTSA to open the season, the highly ranked Michigan State Spartans entered the desert. In a defensive chess match of a game, ASU put kicker Brandon Ruiz in position to win with a chip shot and he converted.
The Devils were ranked No. 23 after starting 2-0, with the best run defense in the nation.
Unfortunately, this wave lasted the longest. ASU’s first road game ended in disappointment as a late comeback bid fell short. They lost by seven to San Diego State.
The next week looked to be the Sun Devils’ toughest task of the year as they went up to Seattle to face Washington. They fell behind early and despite showing life late, they lost by seven again.
ASU had yet to lose at home, though. After the bye week, it hosted Stanford, and perhaps had its most lifeless offensive performance of the season. They hardly ran the ball, and the Cardinal held them to 13 points, the Devil’s lowest output of 2018. Stanford won by … seven.
The offense went stagnant over the stretch, as the rush attack was underutilized making ASU predictable. The Devils scored no more than 21 points in any of its four losses at that point. At the end of this span, Edwards’ squad was in cellar of the Pac-12 South with little hope of climbing out given their next two matchups were against the top two teams in the division (USC and Utah).
Rose Bowl Aspirations
Here’s when ASU looked like the Pac-12’s best team for a few weeks.
Things were bleak. Arizona State was in need of a big win, but they were heading to Los Angeles to face a USC program that had blown out the Sun Devils in three consecutive seasons. But, ASU came out hot, taking a 10-point lead into halftime, holding on to win a thrilling game 38-35. Running back Eno Benjamin was dynamic with 185 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. The offensive balance was much better, and wide out N’Keal Harry bolstered his pro résumé by making a candidate for catch of the year. ASU’s first road win gave them some swagger back, and they rode that high for the next few weeks.
One Saturday later, the Pac-12 South-leading Utah Utes came into Tempe, and were run off of the field. Quarterback Manny Wilkins had his best game of his college career, completing 19 of 24 passes for 285 yards and three scores. Benjamin ran for 175 and a score and Harry was dominant with nine catches, 161 yards and three touchdowns. ASU outscored the Utes 17-0 in the final frame, and all of the sudden, the Devils were in the conversation for Pac-12 South champions, just half a game behind Utah.
A suddenly frisky UCLA team was next on the slate for ASU, and the Bruins gave the Devils a scare. Arizona State held on to win 31-28, and continued its push to win the South. Since the Devils defeated Utah and their last game was to be against fellow contender Arizona, ASU now controlled its own destiny. But Oregon was up next, in Eugene.
Like many of its other losses, ASU came out flat in the first half against the Ducks. The defense allowed 28 points, and the offense struggled until very late in the half.
The Devils owned the second half though, and scored a late touchdown to narrow the score to 31-29. On the two-point conversion attempt, Wilkins found his target Frank Darby in the back of the end zone, but he couldn’t get a foot inbounds and it was ruled incomplete (a close play that was inexplicably not reviewed).
The loss crushed ASU’s potential of making the Pac-12 Championship Game, but the Devils were in position to end their bitter rival Arizona’s season the following week, since the Wildcats needed a win to be bowl-eligible.
A Territorial Cup that will Appear in Every ASU Hype Video for the Rest of Time
The home team had won five straight games of the Territorial Cup entering this season. It was Arizona’s turn host the event, and the Wildcats were hungry to play in a bowl game. Three quarters into the game, it appeared UA was going to.
Arizona State was dead in the water entering the fourth quarter. The defense had allowed 40 points, and ASU trailed by 19. Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate was having his way all game, and all UA had to do was control the clock and stop the Devils as they had been doing.
But, ASU drove and kicked a field goal to start the quarter. It was a 16-point game. The Devils quickly got the ball back and drove 80 yards into the end zone. They converted the two-point attempt, and the lead was eight. Tate was soon intercepted, and ASU took over on the Arizona 22-yard line.
A few plays later, Ruiz sent a 39-yard field goal through the uprights as opposed to the offense going for it on fourth and nine, a decision by Edwards that would eventually look brilliant.
Two plays later, Arizona halfback J.J. Taylor got stripped, and ASU safety Tyler Johnson pounced on it. On the very next play, Benjamin ran it in from 22 yards back.
Arizona was left with three minutes and down by one. The Wildcats drove to the ASU 27, but kicker Josh Pollack missed the game-winner from 45 yards out. The largest comeback in the rivalry’s history belongs to the Devils. The 92nd Territorial Cup triumph completed the first regular season of the Edwards era at 7-5.
The bowl game was a letdown after such a remarkable game 12. Without Harry, who had declared for the 2019 NFL Draft, ASU scored just three points in the second half against Fresno State, and the Bulldogs won 31-20.
Questions loom for next season, especially at quarterback since Wilkins’ days in Tempe are over. But the new era in Sun Devil football is off to a good start. Edwards silenced many doubters by showing good leaderships skills and getting his players to “leave it all on the grass.” Gonzales showed a lot of innovation on defense and, due to his personnel’s youth, there is good reason to believe further improvement is coming.
Watch out for linebacker Merlin Robertson, who won the Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year award, in the future. On offense, Benjamin is the player to watch going forward. He broke ASU’s single season rushing record in his sophomore year with 1,642 yards and could rocket up draft boards with another good year.
ASU has recruited well at quarterback with two four-star talents coming in. Jayden Daniels and Joey Yellen will battle with current backups Dillon Sterling-Cole, Kurt Walding and Ryan Kelly for next year’s starting position.
Time to mark opening night on the 2019 calendars. The Sun Devils will take on Kent State in Tempe on Thursday, August 29.
Other notable facts regarding 2018
- Manny Wilkins finished two passing yards behind Jake Plummer for fourth-most in ASU history.
- ASU has won 13 of the past 20 Territorial Cups. They still trail in the overall series 49-42 (one tie).
- N’Keal Harry is projected to be the first Sun Devil drafted in the first round since Damarious Randall in 2015. The last offensive player to be was Levi Jones in 2002 and the most recent receiver to be a first round selection was Aaron Cox in 1988.
- Sophomore kicker Brandon Ruiz has already knocked down the fifth-most field goals in school history. If he plays all four years, he is on pace to finish second in that category behind Zane Gonzalez.
- Merlin Robertson led ASU in tackles and sacks during his first campaign. Fellow freshman Aashari Crosswell finished with the team high in interceptions with four and passes deflected with nine.
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