November 29, 2008

Defensive performance won't soon be forgotten

With UCLA trailing 17-9 and in possession of the football at the ASU six yard line early in the fourth quarter of Friday might's game between the two schools, Bruin quarterback Kevin Craft lofted a ball toward receiver Marcus Everett in the corner of the end zone. It was a pass that could have led to a touchdown and potential game tying 2-point conversion attempt.

Instead, ASU senior safety Troy Nolan, playing in his final game at Sun Devil Stadium, athletically leaped and tipped the under thrown Craft pass to himself, hauled it in and returned it 100-yards for a touchdown with 9 minutes 50 seconds left to give the home team a 24-9 advantage.

"I was thinking about it all week. I wanted to make a big play, an interception maybe, but I didn't think it wouldn't be a 100-yard return," Nolan said.

It was the third defensive touchdown of the night for the Sun Devils.

Amazingly, it wouldn't be the last.

Less than a minute later, on UCLA's second play from scrimmage following Nolan's touchdown, Craft threw another interception, this one picked off by junior linebacker Mike Nixon.

Nixon's 45-yard return was ASU's fourth defensive touchdown of the night, tying an NCAA record set by Houston on Nov. 7, 1987 in a win over Texas.

"I've been around something like 35 years," said Arizona State Coach Dennis Erickson, "and I've never seen that many points scored on defense in my life. I'm going to put that defensive tape in my archives."

In a period of just 46 seconds, ASU turned a closely contested game into a 31-9 blowout with two defensive touchdowns.

And they were the third and fourth defensive scores of the game.

In the second quarter, the Sun Devils took a 7-3 lead on one of the strangest plays of the season.

On second and eight from the UCLA 19 yard line, Craft was sacked by junior defensive end Dexter Davis on a play where he was bringing the football back to throw. The ball catapulted forward from the contact, and it was unclear on the field whether it was a fumble or incomplete pass.

The ball bounced into the hands of Bruin running back Derrick Coleman and Nixon knocked it out. With players standing around on the field, ASU defensive tackle Paul Unga finally picked up the ball after a delayed reaction, and walked into the end zone.

ASU players were seemingly incredulous when officials on the field raised their arms to signify touchdown.

"I was backside in coverage, I saw the sack, I thought it might be a fumble, the way the running back picked it up I thought it was a dead play so I just kind of slapped it out of his hands for good measure," Nixon said of the play. "I think (linebacker Morris) Wooten [hit] the running back right in. Paul kind of walked in, nobody really knew what was going on so the celebration wasn't what it should have been."

Perhaps the strangest part of the play, the UCLA player who initially recovered the fumble, Coleman, is hearing impaired. Since the ball traveled forward to good distance to reach him, he may have assumed it was an incomplete pass.

"I saw Dexter hit the quarterback and then I don't know who picked up the ball (for UCLA), and then Mike Nixon hit it out of his hands, I was running on the other side, I didn't hear the whistle blowing," Unga said.
"I picked up the ball and started walking. I turned around and Luis Vasquez said go so I ran to the touchdown. They reviewed it and it stayed so I was happy.

"I never thought I'd get into the end zone. I always wanted to but I never thought it was going to happen."

Erickson and Unga each said the team's gameplan was to stop the run and get pressure on Craft with the ASU front four. It worked to the tune of five sacks

"We knew that if Craft got pressure on him he was going to throw some bad balls and all we did all week was emphasize, stop the run, stop the run, pressure," Unga said. "That's what we came to do."

Just about six minutes after Unga's score put ASU ahead 7-3, Craft threw his first interception of the night, a ball tipped by cornerback Terell Carr just prior to reaching its destination. The ball landed in the hands of junior linebacker Travis Gothel, who returned it 38 yards for a touchdown that led to a 14-3 ASU advantage.

Nixon and Goethel each made impressive moves after the catch in order to elude UCLA players and reach pay dirt.

"The way coach Bray beat us up early in the year, we both had interceptions where we got tackled and had a chance to take it (for touchdowns). The don't let us forget that so I think we had flashbacks and had to make a move," Nixon said.

It's a pretty safe bet nobody is going to let them forget this one either.

Defensive Game Notes

  • Nolan's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown tied an ASU record set by Emmanuel Franklin in 2001 against San Diego State, and matched by R.J. Oliver in 2003 against Northern Arizona.

  • ASU's 183 interception return yards shattered the school single game mark of 139, set in 1985 against Cal, a game in which the Sun Devils had seven interceptions.

  • ASU broke a school record for most touchdowns on interceptions in a game, with three. The previous record was two, achieved against Central Florida in 2002, against Houston in 1974 and against BYU in 1974.

  • Wooten had 17 tackles, the most in a game by a Sun Devil this season. In his final game at Sun Devil Stadium, Wooten also had two sacks.

  • ASU's defense has not allowed a touchdown in 10 quarters.

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