Rudy Burgess Scores Winning Touchdown (AP)
EL PASO, Texas - This isn’t how this game was suppose to shake out, was it? A stout Purdue defense was suppose to rattle an inexperienced quarterback in Sam Keller, and suffocate running back Rudy Burgess, right? Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, someone forgot to tell that to those two, who hooked up twice in the last six minutes of the game and lead the maroon and gold on New Year’s Eve to a 27-23 win. The bowl victory was ASU’s first one since the 1997 Sun Bowl.
The first half of play was one that was marred with mishaps and miscues. Jesse Ainsworth missed three field goals of 50 yards or more, but did connect on a 22-yard try to give ASU a 3-0 lead at the 2:35 mark of the first quarter. Sam Keller lost a fumble, had another luckily negated by a Purdue facemask penalty, and Preston Jones was sacked in the end zone with just under five minutes to go in the half for a safety. The halftime score stays at 3-2 as Purdue’s Ben Jones missed a 47 yarder.
The Boilmakers’ signal caller Kyle Orton may have been silent in the first half, but on his first play of the third quarter he connects with Brian Hare for an 80-yard touchdown to give his team their first lead of the game 9-3. However, the Devils came storming back on their first possession of the second half, a 25-yard catch by Moey Mutz highlights an 80-yard drive that ends with a 27-yard touchdown catch by Derek Hagan to put ASU back on top 10-9.
Just like the third quarter, the fourth stanza started with a Purdue touchdown, this time Orton connects with Taylor Stubblefield from five yards out, and Purdue is back on top 16-10. Jimmy Verdon recovered a fumble at the opponents’ 19-yard line, but all ASU can muster is a 34-yard Ainsworth filed goal to shrink the margin to 16-13 with 10:33 left in the game. On the next Sun Devil possession, the Sam Keller-Rudy Burgess connection strikes for the first time, as a screen pass goes 41 yards for a touchdown and 20-16 lead. With just over three minutes left, Justin Burks' thunderous tackle pops the ball out of Brandon Jones’ hands and into Josh Barrett’s. The Devils fail to get a first down, and Jason Burke’s one-hop snap causes Chris MacDonald’s punt to be blocked, as the pigskin rolls all the way to ASU’s 36-yard line. Orton engineered a 41-second drive to what many felt was the winning score of the game, six-yard completion to Charles Davis and 23-20 Boilermaker lead.
Keller has talked many times about everything he has learned from starting quarterback Andrew Walter. The topics may wide in range, but fourth quarter comebacks had to be one of them. With 1:14 left on the clock and 80 yards to go, following three consecutive completed passes, the sophomore finds Burgess on yet another screen pass from 19 yards out to put up the Sun Devils up for good. Purdue does gain two first downs in the last 43 seconds, but ultimately fall short in a game that thrilled a record setting Sun Bowl crowd of 51,288.
Keller’s debut as a starter produced jaw dropping stats of 25-45 for 370 yards, three scores and no INT’s. Burgess led ASU’s ground attack with 125 yards on 20 carries, and added 64 yards on only three catches, two of whom went for touchdowns. Hagan collected 182 yards on nine catches. His performance currently ranks as the highest receiving yards total in all the bowls played thus far in the 2004 season. Burks lead the defense with 13 tackles, while Dale Robinson, who seems to always shine against Big Ten schools this season, added 11 tackles – three of them for a loss.
“The maturity that Sam showed … I love his enthusiasm for the game,” ASU head coach Dirk Koetter said following the game. “A comeback win in your first start - what’s the matter with that?” The humble Keller, who won the bowl’s MVP award, was very pragmatic in his post-game comments. “I just thought that if I did my job and that if I did make the right plays, we would come out and be all right, because I’ve got so many great players around me,” Keller said. “When you have to go in there and get it done as a quarterback in this offense, it has got to come to you.”
Jason Burke’s botched long snap to MacDonald nearly cost the game fro ASU. Thus, one can understand his enthusiasm over Burgess’ heroics. “I went up and actually hugged and kissed him,” Burke said. “Not on the lips or anything like that.”
Our theme was ‘answer the scratch,’ and that’s what we did coming down in the last seconds of the fourth quarter,” said ASU Josh Barrett. Kyle Caldwell added: “We’ve never given up. We’ve been in this situation too many times. You’ve always got to have faith. We definitely didn’t put our heads down.” Indeed they didn’t. As 2004 came to close, the maroon and gold have every right to hold their head high and feel good on what was an improbable 9-3 record, and be genuinely excited for what 2005 brings.