Entering Saturday, the Pac-12 South was a congested four team race with chance for Arizona State to gain some separation from their competition. The Sun Devils started fast, jumping out to a quick 14-0 lead on the visiting Bruins and looking every bit like a team that had moved on from their crushing defeat to Oregon the previous week.
But the Bruins came charging back behind the big play of redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley and their talented senior running back, Jonathan Franklin, stealing a victory on the road and dropping the Devils to 5-3 (3-2 conference).
"It's a tough one to swallow but we've got to stick together as a team," said junior cornerback Osahon Irabor after the game." We can't listen to people on the outside talking about what's going on with us. We've got to stay together as a family and move on to the next game, and that's all we can really do.
Saturday marked the return of former Sun Devil offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's return to Tempe in his new role at UCLA, as the Bruin offense racked up 486 yards on the Sun Devils, gashing ASU with a number of new looks and catching them off guard with big play scores.
"I actually felt like they put a lot of wrinkles in," said senior cornerback Deveron Carr of the Bruins play calling. "We practiced certain things that they did not run at all, so that kind of put us in some adverse situations. At the same time, I feel like we work hard and should be able to handle that. Most of the time we did, but we've still got to work hard as a team. It's about staying disciplined, staying focused and everybody doing their job, doing what they're coached to do."
The Phoenix native, Hundley, torched the Sun Devil secondary, who came into the game as the nation's top passing defense statistically, for 274 yards and four touchdowns. The freshman consistently made things happen with his feet, extending plays while frustrating the ASU defense.
"He played really well," said senior linebacker Brandon Magee of the Hundley. "He was moving around a lot in the pocket. He made some good reads but we just can't allow him to scramble to the outside. He stepped up, got those extra yards with his feet and also when he runs, he was making some good plays out there. I've got respect for the guy.
"I would definitely say that we made some critical errors on defense that we haven't been doing all year at it really cost us at the end," remarked Irabor. "Little things can catch up to, one or two big plays resulting in touchdowns that we haven't given up all year really dictated the flow of the game and put us in that situation that we were in at the very end."
Franklin helped pace the attack as well as he rushed for 176 yards on the afternoon. The playmaker routinely exploited the lack of depth at the interior of the Sun Devil defense, as defensive tackle Will Sutton sat out, still recovering from his knee injury against Oregon. Franklin helped move the chains for the Bruins late, as UCLA converted on 7-13 third down attempts and all six of their red zone opportunities.
"We have a lot of confidence in the guys that we put out there," said Irabor when asked by the health of the defense after consecutive poor performances. "Everyone worked hard all week and we had a lot of faith in our defensive line going into this game and I think they did a good job today. But we definitely miss Will Sutton, there's no question about that."
Despite that though, the Sun Devils still had their chances to salvage a victory late in the contest. Trailing 42-33 with nine minutes to go, ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, who completed 25-35 passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns along with one interception, led the Sun Devils on consecutive scoring drives to recapture the lead. Jon Mora made his third field goal of the day to bring the Devils within six before defense rose to the occasion and stopped the Bruins, giving the ASU offense a chance to find magic.
Kelly was able to find freshman running back D.J. Foster in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, putting the Devils ahead 43-42 with just 1:33 remaining in the game. For Foster, it was his seventh catch of the day, which gave him 107 receiving yards and his lone touchdown. The playmaker also tallied 66 rushing yards, tops amongst the running backs on Saturday.
Unfortunately for the home crowd, Hundley led the Bruins down field like a seasoned veteran, putting them in position for a 33 yard field goal that Fairbairn was able to push through the uprights as time expired.
"I felt like we had great momentum and confidence in our team," said a despondent Kelly afterwards. "I had great trust and belief in our defense to get a stop and we just came up short. They made a few big plays for us but we've just got to bounce back and get the troops rallied up and get ready for Oregon State."
Ultimately, the Sun Devils will look back at Saturday and know they didn't help themselves as much as they should have. An ill-advised Kelly interception near the end of the first half set up a late score for the Bruins as they took the lead heading into the break. A number of other miscues inside of the redone also took a number of points of the scoreboard for the Devils.
"When we got into the red zone a couple times we went three and out or four and out," said Kelly. "But the big thing is protecting the football, that was a huge part. With under a minute left in the half, I've got to do a better job with that."
The Sun Devils will now get ready for another big test as they prepare to face seventh ranked Oregon State on the road next week, in desperate need of a win if they hope to turn around a season that once looked brimming with optimism. And for this Sun Devil team, it'll be a chance to put an end to the same kind of losing skid that completely derailed last season's fast start that ended with a five game losing streak.
"I'd tell them, make any comparison you want to because we can't pay any attention to what the people are saying on the outside," said Magee on the comparisons to last year's losing streak. "We don't care what nobody says. We have a tough game against Oregon State coming up; we're focusing on that now. And then we play SC, Washington State and UA.
“We've got to run the table. We've really got to step it up the next few weeks. I could really care less what anybody on the outside says about anything."