EAST LANSING, Mich. – Before the Arizona State football team started its final drive against Michigan State, freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels stood in Spartan Stadium and communicated a quick yet not so simple message:
“We are going to win this football game.”
He was right, thrusting the 3-0 team into the Top 25 poll and national conversation. Since then, many journalists have shared the sentiment of USA Today’s Dan Wolken.
“A lot of us – myself, particularly – were dead wrong about Arizona State hiring Herm Edwards,” he wrote.
A deeper look inside the victory over MSU sheds light on the success of ASU, which begins Pac-12 play Saturday night against Colorado at Sun Devil Stadium.
It starts with Daniels. Despite a stout MSU defense and the offensive struggles, Daniels orchestrated an unfreshman-like game winning drive that junior running back Eno Benjamin capped with a 1-yard touchdown run with 50 seconds left on the clock. This drive also included a 40-yard pass to senior wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and a 15-yard scramble on 4th and 13 from Daniels against then-No. 18 Michigan State (2-1).
“(Benjamin) said, ‘Give me the ball. I am going to go win this game,’” Daniels said.
He did, helping ASU to a 10-7 victory as it jumped to No. 24 in the latest Associated Press poll. Edwards acknowledged that the Sun Devils must improve, especially on offense.
He certainly was impressed with how Daniels played in East Lansing. Daniels finished 15 of 26 passing for only 140 yards, but he put ASU in position for the game winning touchdown in a hostile environment with impactful plays, primarily with his ability to run.
“(Daniels) did good, boy, the kid did good,” Edwards said. “He made a lot of plays with his legs. I think that is surprising to a lot of people – his ability to run, and he is a smart runner. On the last drive when I talked to him, I said, ‘Here it is.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I got us.’
“… He is going to be a really good player one day.”
Nobody involved with ASU football considers Daniels a freshman, but Edwards said Daniels does act his age sometimes. Edwards noted, though, that when he walked down the sideline in the fourth quarter, he noticed Daniels laughing and cracking jokes on the sideline.
“I was like, ‘You all right?’ He said, ‘Coach, we are good.’ I was thinking, ‘Really? We have barely moved the ball past the 50, yet.’” Edwards said.
Edwards understands how much potential Daniels has but said ASU has to fix its struggles, mainly as an offensive unit.
Daniels isn’t the only true freshman that starts, as Ladarius Henderson starts at left tackle and Dohnovan West starts at right guard. ASU played 28 freshmen throughout the game against the Spartans, which Edwards said he doesn’t want to be overlooked.
With that lack of experience, Edwards realizes that mistakes are inevitable. And that the young players need the repetitions.
“If we are truly trying to build a program, then you have to play those guys,” Edwards said.
‘The normal fan has no idea’
As he sat in the media room at Spartan Stadium on Saturday night, ASU offensive coordinator Rob Likens couldn’t believe what had just transpired as the Sun Devils finished the upset on the road.
“The predicament we were in with our offensive line, our quarterback and who we were going against,” Likens said. “I can’t even. I am just trying to wrap it all around in my mind.”
ASU entered East Lansing with a freshman quarterback, left tackle and right guard and as a 14-point underdog against MSU.
Before this game, it was decided senior center Cohl Cabral would play left tackle so ASU wouldn’t have a freshman guarding Daniels’ blindside. It wasn’t known until kickoff that ASU had decided on Sept. 9 that Henderson would make his first collegiate start and Cabral would permanently move back to his natural position.
Likens had to hide this information, so the Spartans couldn’t take advantage with their stout defensive line.
“I apologize,” Likens said. “I hate doing that. I really do. But I knew what would happen if (MSU) had a week to game plan for a true freshman left tackle. You wouldn’t be talking to me right now. … The normal fan has no idea what we had to do in this game plan just to get some passes off.”
Likens said Daniels had to re-tape his ankle on the first offensive drive, which hobbled him.
Although Daniels didn’t have his best game, Likens said the performance was special because of that early injury and the offensive line shift. Likens added that Daniels impressed him with competitiveness to come up clutch in late moments after a struggle on offense from the Sun Devils.
“What a performance,” Likens said. “What he did just to know (the situation) and to have that courage to stand in the pocket, he is a special player.”
Likens had a “recipe” to settle his mind so he didn’t panic throughout the game, as nothing seemed to work against the MSU defense. He said he kept his phone by his side, and he would periodically look down to read verses from Psalms.
As a believer, Likens related his faith to the situation and final result, saying, “Look at that score and what we just did.”
Likens tried to put the significance of the upset into context.
“I was at Temple University in 1998 when we went to Blacksburg, Virginia, where we were (winless and) a 36 1/2-point underdog and we beat (undefeated) Virginia Tech,” Likens said. “It was one of the biggest upsets in all of college football, and that doesn’t even come close to what we did (against the Spartans).”
After the win, Likens added that every coach contributed to help the game plan in practice and on the sidelines. He added that the 216 yards of total offense ASU had “was the most glorious” 216 yards he has as a coach.
“It was just a great thing to be a part of, man,” Liken said. “I am kind of a little emotional, but if you just knew what it took to win this game. I am just still kind of in shock.”
‘There is nothing like it’
With the offensive struggles, the Sun Devil defense came through, again, with another stout performance, allowing only a late touchdown.
Although he acknowledged the team had multiple Hall of Famers on defense, Edwards related the defensive performances this season to when he was at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which relied on defense. In college football, he said that it is hard to win consistently like that, but ASU has allowed just a late touchdown in each game this season and ranks second nationally in points per game.
“We have given up 21 points,” Edwards said. “I don’t know, I have been around a lot of football, and I think that is good. If you do that, you have a chance to win football games. Now, it is not pretty. It is nothing that you would want to pay to watch, but we are going to have to play this way because that is what is appropriate for us.
“When the offense gets going, maybe other things will happen. But for right now, we gotta keep it tight. … I’ll say it again, 21 points in college football in three games. That is pretty good by my count.”
Last season, ASU won 16-13 against MSU at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe and jumped into the AP poll, but the Sun Devils lost at San Diego State the next weekend.
As ASU heads into its game against Colorado, Edwards, 65, doesn’t want the mindset to change with more recognition in the rankings.
“(Being ranked) doesn’t do anything for you, it doesn’t help you win games,” Edwards said at his news conference on Monday in Tempe.
After Edwards left the sidelines in 2008, he became an analyst at ESPN in 2009. Then, he made a decision on Dec. 3, 2017, to return and coach at ASU because he wanted to be back and to continue his mission to build an improved college football program in Tempe.
“I had a really good job,” Edwards said. “I think about that sometimes when I see it is 3-0 at halftime. I am like, ‘Why would you do this?’ Because I love it. I really do. I love the players. I love the sense of it all. I really do. It is just something about it.
“There is nothing like it. There is nothing like doing this. … It is a lot of heartache, but it is a lot of fun.”