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November 17, 2012From almost the onset of Saturday's season finale at Sun Devil Stadium, the outcome was never in doubt.
All Arizona State needed to accomplish occurred early in the afternoon as Washington State raised the white flag at the first sign of trouble.
But instead of sleep-walking through the motions against a clearly outmanned opponent, the Sun Devils opted to play for reasons other than the final score.
Dedicating its performance to its 17 seniors playing their final home game, ASU demolished the Cougars (2-9, 0-8 Pac-12) on Saturday, 46-7, to earn bowl eligibility and snap a four-game losing streak.
"The way these guys played today was exactly how you'd script a Senior Day," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "Obviously it was a very emotional day for us, seeing them run out of the tunnel and just how those guys have opened their hearts and this team to me, and to a whole new way of doing things. I'm just really proud of the senior bunch."
To the enjoyment of their teammates and coaches, ASU's two most prominent seniors, running back Cameron Marshall and linebacker Brandon Magee, fought back their sentimentality to turn in memorable performances Saturday.
Marshall rushed 16 times for 75 yards while Magee recorded four tackles including a 10-yard sack.
"It meant a lot to get that victory, I can't even describe how it felt to come out of that tunnel," Magee said. "I had a stomach ache. It was a weird feeling, especially at the end of the game. To hear the fans and the appreciation they had for the seniors here and for the team really made my day. I'll remember it forever."
Two other Sun Devil seniors stole the show as well. ASU safety Keelan Johnson intercepted two passes while senior wide receiver Rashad Ross caught eight passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns.
"It didn't hit me until after the game and not until I went back into the tunnel and I realized that this was really my last game on this field, so I was kind of saddened a little bit," Ross said. "I will bounce off that because we have two more games left though."
The first of those remaining contests comes on Black Friday when ASU travels to Tucson for the Territorial Cup. Already hung up in the Sun Devil workout room is a banner that reads "Beat Cats."
"You can go 11-0, lose that game and it's an unsuccessful year," Graham said. "That's what college football is about. We have a countdown clock in the weight room year round. I wanted to know what our fans wanted and resoundingly they talked about the Territorial Cup. That's the No. 1 priority."
With Saturday's resounding victory, however, the Sun Devils (6-5, 4-4 Pac-12) took the pressure off themselves for next week. Regardless of the outcome, ASU will play in its second straight bowl game. The accomplishment, although small compared to its original aspirations, was something Graham felt proud of especially because of the disappointing month the team just went through.
"It's very significant, that's something that has to be a minimum for our program every year," he said. "Obviously, our expectations are a lot higher than that but you can't build a program without it. That's big for us to get our sixth win. Our guys never flinched, never faltered. I've never sensed anything but great work ethic from them. They've been a joy to coach."
One of the few negatives for ASU on Saturday came with the starters resting late in the fourth quarter when WSU broke up the shutout courtesy of a 54 yard touchdown pass right through the middle of the Sun Devil secondary.
Before that, the only time the Cougars came close to scoring was when they drove the ball down to the Sun Devil six yard line in the second quarter but failed to convert on a fourth and four.
"I can't say enough about these guys defensively," Graham said. "I was very disappointed that our twos gave up a score, I thought our guys really wanted a shutout. I think our niche in this conference is defense. We want to build a place that plays dominant defense and I think we've laid a great foundation for that."
The WSU passing attack, which came in ranked first in the Pac-12, was limited well off its average to just 240 yards, with a large chunk of that number coming with the Sun Devil starters on the bench.
"These guys did a good job of executing a plan and were fundamentally sound in the passing game," Graham said. "We didn't do the same thing; we moved around, we pressured, we rushed. I have a bunch of smart guys that do a great job."
In defending the rush, ASU was even stouter. The Sun Devils held the Cougars to a net total of one yard on the ground, the lowest amount by a conference opponent at home since 1996. Even more impressive was that ASU did it while its game plan was designed mostly to take away the pass.
"Honestly, we played a lot of nickel and a lot of right coverage against the passing game, so that means our d-line did a great job mixing it up, getting there and being effective on the run," Magee said. "I give the d-line all the credit for that."
Offensively, a day lining up against WSU was just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Sun Devils, especially sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly.
The signal-caller who threw seven interceptions in his previous four games before Saturday exploded against the Cougars for 246 yards and four touchdown passes. He also broke the school record for consecutive completed passes with 18 straight after beginning the afternoon 2-for-5.
"Taylor [Kelly] did a great job, I thought he settled down today and played well," Graham said. "He's a really mature young man. He's calm, cool and collected. Obviously when you face adversity, it's important that they know you believe and trust them."
In cohesion with Kelly, ASU freshman quarterback Michael Eubank saw an increased role in the offense Saturday, completing 7-of-9 passes for 55 yards and a score while also rushing for 33 yards.
"I thought Mike Eubank did some good things as well," Graham said. "The ball got dispersed and moved around an awful lot on our offense."
To the coach's point, nine Sun Devils caught passes against WSU, which left the Cougars defense scrambling to defend everyone.
"Earlier on we all were not really producing as receivers," Ross said. "But today, it seemed like we all clicked. It wasn't just me catching balls, Jamal (Miles) caught some balls, Chris (Coyle) caught some and we were just feeding off each other's energy."
For the 10th time this season, ASU scored first Saturday, taking advantage of mishandled WSU punt with a junior kicker Jon Mora 21 yard field goal to go ahead, 3-0.
But unlike in their four-game losing streak in which they would consistently surrender the lead, the Sun Devils kept their foot on the gas Saturday.
After the Cougars went three and out on their ensuing drive, the Sun Devils added to their advantage two minutes later when Kelly hit Ross across the middle for a 15 yard catch, run and score aided by a good block from fellow senior wide out Jamal Miles.
On its next possession, ASU found its way into the endzone again, this time on junior tight end Chris Coyle's first of two touchdown grabs of the day. The Sun Devils got the Cougars secondary to bite on a screen pass, allowing the tight end to break open into free space down the sideline for the 18 yard score.
"We have been focusing all week on coming out fast, speeding up the tempo," Coyle said. "It is something that we have noticed in the past games that teams can't keep up with. There has been times where we have let down our tempo in the past and that is when teams are able to hang with us, so we wanted to make sure to really emphasize that this game and the reason why we were able to come out so fast."
Already asserting itself with ease, ASU tacked on two more touchdowns in the second quarter to put the game comfortably out of reach.
The first came on a nifty catch and run from junior running back Marion Grice, who evaded six WSU defenders to score from 17 yards out. His eight receiving touchdowns lead the nation among tailbacks.
Two minutes later, the Sun Devils capped off their dominant first half when Eubank hit Coyle down the sideline for a 29 yard score, putting ASU up 32-0 at the break.
Coming out of the locker room the Sun Devils dialed back their tempo, but still managed to tally 14 more points. A Eubank one yard keeper followed by Ross' second touchdown reception of the afternoon left the Sun Devils flying high ahead of next week's showdown with Arizona.
"Just getting our confidence back like we did today was huge," Coyle said. "Just pounding the ball the first couple series and just running every single play. Once we were able to do that, it loosened up the secondary and guys like Ross and (Kevin) Ozier were able to go in. It was the perfect game plan for this game."