TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State won a wild game over Wisconsin, escaping with a two-point victory thanks to a bizarre closing sequence that still had everyone talking two days later and led to a reprimand for the officiating crew.
Overshadowed by the peculiarity of the ending was the Sun Devils' accomplishment: They pulled off one of their biggest wins in years, beating a ranked team despite not playing their best.
Not a bad way to kick off a difficult stretch in the schedule.
"We just beat the defending Big Ten champion," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said during his weekly news conference on Monday. "I'd say that's a pretty good win."
With its 32-30 win over then-No. 20 Wisconsin, the Sun Devils (2-0) moved into The Associated Press poll for the first time in two years at No. 23.
They certainly worked hard to get there Saturday night.
Despite numerous missed opportunities and miscues, Arizona State came from behind to take a 32-24 lead.
The Sun Devils almost blew it, though, burned by a fake punt they knew was coming on one touchdown drive, then giving the Badgers a chance with poor clock management and even worse coverage on Wisconsin's final drive.
Arizona State dodged what would have been a disheartening loss when Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave made a strange-looking kneel down — he was bumped by an offensive lineman — in the closing seconds that led to confusion on both sides of the ball, not to mention the officials.
Because of mistakes by the officials, who were reprimanded by the Pac-12 on Monday, and the confusion, Wisconsin was unable to get another play off despite being well within range for a potential game-winning field goal.
"That's the human element of the game, but at the end of the day, I'm proud of our guys, how hard they played," Graham said. "They deserved to win and I truly believe that."
The victory over the Badgers kicks off a rough stretch in the schedule that includes games against No. 5 Stanford, Southern California and No. 22 Notre Dame.
The Sun Devils will need to play better if they're going to have a chance to make it two big wins in a row against the Cardinal on Saturday.
Arizona State had some big plays on offense and decent success against Wisconsin's run game early, but had some big miscues that nearly cost them the game.
The Sun Devils were plagued by dropped passes throughout the game and struggled in scoring chances, earning six points on three of their drives deep into Wisconsin's end.
Late in the fourth quarter, Arizona State forced Wisconsin into a punting situation in their own end and, despite warnings from their coaches to watch out for a fake punt, allowed the Badgers to pull one off for a first down. Wisconsin scored at the end of the drive but failed on the 2-point conversion to pull within 32-30.
Poor clock management gave the Badgers a final chance and the Sun Devils, despite playing a defense designed to funnel receivers inside, helped by allowing Jeff Duckworth to catch a ball to the outside and race up the sideline for a 51-yard reception to set up the potential game-winning field goal.
"That should never happen," Graham said.
It all worked out in the Sun Devils' favor, though, giving them a marquee victory over a team that played in the past three Rose Bowls.
Of course, all that does is move Arizona State onto its next big challenge: The bruising Cardinal in the Bay Area.
Stanford, at least so far this season, has been a better version of Wisconsin, its massive linemen clearing the way for a power running game and with an added dimension of a quality passing game.
Graham wanted games like these to test his team and it doesn't get much tougher than this two-week stretch of defending conference champions.
"This team here knows their identity, so did the team last week, they understood their identity," Graham said. "That's what championship teams have, an identity. I think our team is starting to get that."
The Wisconsin win, no matter how bizarre the ending was, was a big step toward that.
Now it's time for the Sun Devils to take the next one.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company