ASU football has a shot at a memorable finish in Herm Edwards’ first season

Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin jumps into the end zone for a touchdown against Utah in the second half on Nov. 3 at Sun Devil Stadium.

Arizona State can go to the Rose Bowl.

Just let that sink in a bit.

After whipping Utah 38-20 with a punishing run game, an opportunistic defense and some guy known as “the Real Deal,” the Sun Devils are within four wins of accomplishing something the program has been able to pull off only twice in its history.

Just don’t ask coach Herm Edwards about it.

“We’re just trying to win one game at a time,” he said. “I don’t get involved in all that. I don’t even talk about that stuff.”

He doesn’t have to. We can do it for him.

ASU – the program that was criticized for firing Todd Graham after a winning season, mocked after hiring Herm Edwards out of the broadcast booth, picked preseason to finish last and left for irrelevancy after losing four of five – would own all the relevant tiebreakers to win the Pac-12 South title if it can beat UCLA, Oregon and Arizona.

Any observers who say they saw this coming are going to need to bring receipts, but the players have never wavered in their beliefs.

Senior quarterback Manny Wilkins – who’s missed throws and made mistakes, but never made excuses or quit – explained how the team has been able to keep steady.

“No matter what happens,” he said, “(we) continue to play and have fun. One thing we can’t let be taken away from us is our love and our happiness for this game. The reason why we play it, is because we love it. So, no matter what was gonna happen, we were gonna continue to play hard.”

What happened was ASU lost to San Diego State in heartbreaking fashion, touching off a string of similar defeats.

At Washington by seven. At Colorado by seven. Home against Stanford by seven.

Then the Sun Devils went to Los Angeles and beat USC in the Coliseum. It looked good. But Utah was going to be a test.

The Utes came in ranked No. 16 in the USA TODAY Amway Coaches poll, but more than that, Utah looked like it could be the best opponent ASU faced all season.

In its four previous games, Utah had beaten Stanford, Arizona, USC and UCLA by a combined score of 164-69, scoring 40 points in each win.

ASU’s offensive line wasn’t intimidated. For the fifth time this season, Cohl Cabral and Co. didn’t allow a sack. And they triggered Eno Benjamin’s latest big day.

Benjamin went for 175 yards and two touchdowns. He’s over 1,000 for the season and on his way to the best season out of an ASU running back in the Pac-12 era. He’s 116 yards away from passing Ryan Torain’s record of 1,229, which was set in 2006.

And then there’s that N’Keal Harry character – “the Real Deal.” He scored on a slant. He scored on a deep fade. And he scored from 61 yards on a play where he seemed to get faster with every step. (Also, Kyle Williams helped him out with a crack-back block that looked like something Jason would do to a camper on Halloween.)

This “Unreal” N’Keal fellow put up 161 yards and three touchdowns. It’s hard to even mention his best play – a winding run on a wide receiver screen where he reversed field and seemed to elude everyone wearing red in the state – because it didn’t finish in the end zone.  

The defense made three interceptions, including a fluky snag by Aashari Crosswell, where he lost track of the ball in the sun, then plucked it out of the air after it bounced of a Utah receiver’s pads. It should have been a Utah touchdown, instead, Crosswell returned it 47 yards the other way, setting ASU up for a 14-0 lead.

And now all ASU has to do is win three, then win the conference championship game, then go to the Rose Bowl and win that and then …

Hey, look, nobody said it was going to be easy. But nobody predicted it would be possible.

Yet, here we are.

The players know what’s in front of them, and how to get there.

“It’s a helluva feeling,” Wilkins said of the win over Utah. “We’re gonna enjoy this now … but it’s time to get this rolling. We’ve got some more football games to win.”

He described the mindset needed to pull off the improbable, but entirely plausible, storybook finish in the last three regular season games of his career.

“It don’t matter who we play,” Wilkins said. “We’ve gotta treat every single team like they’re the best team in the country. If you have that attitude, there’s no excuses. … You guys can see it. We’re having fun out there.”

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