By Michael Griffith
TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State’s season was quickly falling apart.
Four consecutive losses after a 5-1 start left the Sun Devils with just two games to secure a bowl berth — a major stepping stone for a budding program led by second-year head coach Herm Edwards.
Few thought a sixth win would be secured against then-No. 6 Oregon, which was primed for a spot in the College Football Playoff if it won out. Playing on national television, this was supposed to be a chance for the Ducks to make a statement to the college football world.
Indeed, a statement was made. However, it was Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels who dropped the mic on a cool night in the desert.
The true freshman played with ice in his veins en route to a 31-28 victory. He outdueled Oregon’s Justin Herbert, a projected first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Daniels finished his signature game 22-of-32 passing for 408 yards, throwing three touchdowns without committing a turnover. At times, it appeared as if Daniels was the soon-to-be pro playing one of his last collegiate games.
No freshman had a better performance against a better opponent this season. For this reason, Daniels is the winner of the FWAA’s Shaun Alexander Freshman Breakout Performance of the Year.
“He’s just a different kid,” Arizona State offensive coordinator Rob Likens said of Daniels. “He’s really grounded. I don’t worry about him being overconfident. I think games like that give him more confidence and I think he gets into an even better mindset. He’s kind of special in that way.”
Oregon struck first midway through the first quarter to go up 7-0. The Sun Devils fired back on their ensuing possession, with Daniels launching a deep strike to Frank Darby, hitting the receiver in stride for a 57-yard touchdown to tie the game.
Daniels completed his first 12 passes of the game, finishing the first half 12-of-14 passing for 191 yards and one touchdown. More importantly, his team had a 10-7 lead.
Arizona State continued to build momentum as Oregon’s offense sputtered, entering the fourth quarter with a 13-7 lead. It soon grew larger, as Daniels hit Darby again with a perfectly thrown ball into the end zone for a 26-yard score. A field goal on their next drive further increased the lead to 24-7 with just 8:42 remaining in the game.
Then, Oregon started playing like the Pac-12 champs they would soon become.
Two consecutive touchdown drives under 60 seconds brought the Ducks back within three points, and it started to feel like the Sun Devils were running out of gas. Edwards turned to his freshman quarterback to provide the final spark they needed.
“The great thing about Jayden is he’s humble as well,” Edwards said. “He has a lot of fun playing football. I love talking to him on the sidelines, especially here towards the end of the game. I told him ‘It’s time. Can you throw a touchdown or do something? We need a score here.’”
Receiving the ball with just over five minutes left in the final frame, Arizona State’s drive appeared to be headed for disaster as a false start and a sack left Daniels with a third-and-16 from his own 19-yard line. It appeared as though a spark would have to wait. This was no time to make a critical mistake.
Of course, this is Herm Edwards we’re talking about. His team would play to win the game. Daniels dropped back to pass and fired yet another home run down the left sideline, this time to Brandon Aiyuk, who raced 81 yards for a touchdown that sent Sun Devil Stadium into a frenzy.
Arizona State held on for a 31-28 win, silencing critics and converting naysayers in the process.
As for Daniels, he played the best game of his life against the best opponent he’d ever faced.
“We should be playing like that all the time really, but we have something to prove,” Daniels said after the game. “We lost so many games in a row so this win just felt different.”
Daniels broke Arizona State’s single-season record for passing yards by a freshman during the game, but he was quick to point out that a win was the most important thing to him.
“I’m just happy we won, but it really means nothing to me,” Daniels said. “I have a long career ahead of me and I’m just happy to get these guys a win.”
He also set school records for fewest interceptions in a season with over 300 passing attempts (2) and consecutive pass attempts without an interception (157).
Florida State defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett praised Daniels before the Seminoles’ matchup with Arizona State in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.
“Quarterback (Daniels) is good, for a freshman, true freshman, he’svery poised, understands the offense, does a good job of running their offense,” Barnett said. “They believe in what their system tells them to do.”
After the four-game skid, the Sun Devils finished their season with victories against the best team on their schedule (Oregon), their in-state rival (Arizona), and their bowl-game opponent (Florida State).
Arizona State deployed one of the youngest rosters in college football this season, and Daniels spearheaded the youth movement. An 8-5 finish brings excitement to the desert, where the outlook appears sunny.
About Stand Together
The Stand Together Foundation, presenting sponsor of the Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year Awards, is committed to breaking the cycle of poverty by supporting the creative solutions of individuals and organizations who are driving dynamic entrepreneurship in communities across the country and helping people transform their lives. Founded in 2016, the Foundation partners with the nation’s most effective and top-performing non-profits to help them deepen and grow their impact through innovative solutions to break barriers for people in poverty so that they can realize their potential.