The Sun Devil secondary heard about it all week long - stopping Oregon State's passing attack was going to be their biggest test of the season. On Saturday, they delivered their response loud and clear. The Beavers entered the weekend with the nation's second best passing offense but for nearly three quarters looked anything but the part as they struggled to find their rhythm against an Arizona State defense on a mission.
On its first five possessions of the game, Oregon State was limited to just 36 yards of total offense as they quickly fell behind 20-0. Junior quarterback Sean Mannion, who entered the game with just six interceptions on the season, was pressured into a career-high four interceptions, including two by senior cornerback Robert Nelson as the Sun Devil defense stymied any chance of a late comeback in the win.
"It's huge for us," said quarterback Taylor Kelly on the win. "Our program and our guys believe in each other. Whether we're having problems on the offensive end, the defensive end or on special teams, we all come together as a group and our camaraderie and belief in each other is really high right now."
Nelson got things started for the secondary when he intercepted a Mannion pass attempt to junior wide receiver Brandin Cooks at the Arizona State five yard line late in the first quarter, halting one of Oregon State's few scoring opportunities in the half. He also sealed the win late for the Sun Devils, when his 23 yard interception return for a touchdown put Arizona State ahead 30-10 and the game out of reach for the Beavers.
"First off, I just want to give credit to the (defensive) line and everybody else on the defense," said Nelson. "Without them, it couldn't happen. I was just in one of our coverages and I read the quarterback and broke on the ball and made a great play. The credit goes to my team and our defense."
"At that moment, I don't really have a feeling until the game's over. It's just the mentality that I have; move to the next play. Smile, move to the next play, finish this game, and celebrate later. That's how I've always been. A lot of guys say, 'Why don't you smile?' Because the game's not over. So I just move to the next play and then I celebrate after with my team."
It marked the third consecutive game for Nelson that he's recorded an interception for the Sun Devils while also giving him a team-high six interceptions for the season. Safeties Alden Darby and Damarious Randall added to Mannion's woes, each adding an interception to give the Arizona State defense a season-high four picks in the win.
"We have a great defense and guys are playing at a high level," added Kelly. "They're playing as one unit and that's really scary for other teams. Whether Will (Sutton) is having a day, or Robert Nelson, Darby and all of those guys, once they start getting going and play their role and do what they're coached to do, our defense is very, very hard to stop."
Oregon State entered the game averaging 404.8 yards of offense through the air and 37.2 points per game but was overwhelmed by the Sun Devils throughout the night. Chris Young, who recorded a team-high nine tackles, added a sack and a forced fumble to stop the first drive of the game for the Beavers. From there, things only got worse for Mannion and company.
Oregon State finished with 390 passing yards, most of which though came late when the outcome was no longer in question.
"I feel like ever since the bowl game last year, we just started building through spring, through Camp T and everything, and we really feel like we're brothers," remarked Nelson. "That's a mindset that we have. These leaders right here - TK and Marion - I'd do anything for these guys and I'm sure our defense would do that too. They come over and pump us up.
"It's a mindset that we have now and we're really starting to believe that. And now it's time for this week to go and play harder in practice and we can't fall to the level we fell the week of Utah. We have to step it up now."
With its win over Oregon State, the Sun Devils remained undefeated at home this season and notched their first five-game winning streak since 2007.
It also sets the stage for Arizona State's much anticipated showdown with UCLA next weekend on the road. With a win, the Sun Devils can claim their first Pac-12 South divisional championship and secure their place in the conference championship game and a chance to compete for a Rose Bowl berth.
"He was pretty quick," said Kelly of Head Coach Todd Graham's talk to the team following the win. "He congratulated all the guys but he told us that now we've got 60 minutes to achieve our goal next week and to put this one behind us and we'll start with UCLA tomorrow.
"They're going to be playing in front of all their families and friends. It's the Rose Bowl. Pasadena. A lot of our guys are from Southern California so we have to have a very high focus and just study and study and have a great week of preparation."