ASU defense overcomes key injuries, targeting ejection to survive UCLA

ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins receives a hug after ASU's 31-28 win over UCLA in the PAC-12 college football game at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe on Saturday, November 10, 2018. This is the last game at Sun Devil Stadium for Wilkins.

Arizona State football is incredibly young on defense without injuries, starting four true or redshirt freshmen.

Saturday against UCLA, the Sun Devils were forced to go even younger, playing another true freshman and a sophomore extensively out of necessity on what maybe should have been changed from Senior Day to Frosh Frolic.

The result were not perfect, of course. UCLA ran up 439 total yards and had a chance to force overtime. But ASU limited the scoring damage in a 31-28 victory at Sun Devil Stadium, holding a ninth opponent out of 10 to 28 points or fewer.

“The days of giving up 439 yards are going to put me in the grave,” ASU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales said. “We couldn’t cover Caleb Wilson. We had the perfect storm of injuries early and that targeting call.”

First to go down was safety DeMonte King, a senior captain, with a shoulder injury on UCLA’s first offensive possession. Then with 6:12 left in the second quarter, redshirt senior safety Jalen Harvey reinjured his shoulder making a 1-on-1 tackle of running back Joshua Kelley.

That left the Sun Devils, who play a 3-3-5 defense, with a safety trio of true freshmen Aashari Crosswell and Cam Phillips and sophomore Evan Fields. 

Then the linebackers took a hit early in the third quarter when true freshman Merlin Robertson, reigning Pac-12 defensive Player of the Week, was ejected for a targeting hit on quarterback Wilton Speight. Junior Khaylan Thomas primarily replaced Robertson, ASU’s second-leading tackler who also will be out for the first half against Oregon on Nov. 17. 

“It took a little bit away of what we could call,” Gonzales said. “Some of those guys aren’t experienced enough. Then, when you do call stuff that they don’t execute, then there goes another thing you can’t call. We’ve got to coach those guys better. That’s not on them, that’s on the coaches. Don’t call it if they can’t do it.”

Wilson, UCLA’s 6-4 tight end, had 11 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns, helped at least in part by the absence of Harvey, ASU’s leading tackler, and King. 

“He did a really nice job off the line of scrimmage,” Gonzales said of Wilson. “He’s stepping and playing run then as soon as they bite, he’s out of there. Now they’re trying to chase him, and he’s way too good of an athlete to do that.”

Gonzales was reminded of the Tom Cruise auto racing movie “Days of Thunder.”

“None of those dudes have seen it,” he said. “You see a pile of smoke, you accelerate to get through that thing. Just like a mesh route. You try to avoid it, you get it. That comes with experience. First I’ve got to show them the movie so they know what I’m talking about.

“The players won, coaches don’t win games. We’ve got good players that are confident and believe in themselves. We had a lot of inexperienced guys out there, but when they had to at the very end of the game, they made plays.”

Redshirt freshman linebacker Tyler Johnson, in particular, came up big by sacking Speight on a second-and-1 play at the UCLA 41-yard line in the closing minute. The Bruins covered Speight’s fumble on the play only to commit consecutive false-start penalties that erased any hope of driving for a game-tying field goal.

“I told you the next time we have a two-minute drill I’m going to go down swinging,” said Gonzales, thinking about ASU’s four losses by seven points each. “We got pressure on the quarterback and caused a fumble. I wasn’t going to let them dink and dive it down the field. We might have given up a long play and they might won the game (with us) getting beat in man coverage, but we were going to come after that, and it worked.”

Phillips finished with seven tackles (all solo), tied for the team high with Robertson. Fields and Thomas each had three tackles. All will have key roles against Oregon given the injury uncertainty for Harvey and King and with Robertson confined to the locker room for a half in Eugene, Ore.

Gonzales said true freshman Stanley Lambert, who played in his fourth game Saturday, will redshirt as planned and not play again this season.

“We’ll get those other guys ready,” Gonzales said. “I thought Khaylan did a pretty nice job when he came in then we had Malik (Lawal) and Kyle (Soelle) trying to fill in with Johnson.”

Gonzales was told by the referee that Robertson “might have hit him (Speight) with the crown of his helmet in the chest. The rule for safety is good, but it’s such a hard rule to referee. Sometimes the offensive guy is going down and you just run into him and get called for it. Hopefully through time, that rule will get better. They’re doing everything they can to try and get it right.

“It stinks that Merlin is going to miss the first half of the next game, but he’ll practice all week and we’ll get the next guy up and maybe in the second half he’ll be a change-up for us.”

Likens’ favorite drive 

ASU used up a stunning 8 minutes and five seconds on its final scoring drive to go up 31-21 with 3:56 remaining. But offensive coordinator Rob Likens liked a drive in the third quarter even more.

“My favorite was when we didn’t throw a pass and boom, boom, boom, boom, boom (running),” Likens said. “That was just a testament to our offensive line and Eno (Benjamin) and our guys blocking out on the perimeter and not being selfish.”

ASU moved 76 yards in seven plays, all runs, for a touchdown to go up 24-14. Benjamin had all but two of the yards including a 41-yarder to start the drive and a fourth-and-1 carry for the TD.

With 182 yards overall, the sophomore running back became the top single-season rusher in the school’s Pac-10/12 history with 1,295 yards. Benjamin has three games left, now that ASU has clinched a bowl berth, to break Woody Green’s overall school rushing record (1,565 yards, set in 1972).

“They’re a tough team against the run in the first half and a lot of people have got their yards in the second half against them,” Likens said. “I felt pretty good that we could do that. You just keep giving the ball to Eno, and you know it’s coming. Sooner or later, he’s popping one then it’s going to roll.”

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