If there's one thing, more than any other, that unites Arizona State football fans, coaches and players alike, it is their common annual objective of seeing the Sun Devils advance to (and win) the Rose Bowl. The Devils have twice spent New Year's Day in Pasadena, winning once. Consequently, you would think ASU's lone victory in the "Granddaddy" of all the bowl games would rank as the greatest win in Sun Devil football history.
You'd be wrong. Decidedly wrong.
By an almost two-to-one margin, ASU faithful responding to the latest Fans' Poll on the Arizona State athletic department website (www.thesundevils.com) selected the 19-0 victory over defending national champion Nebraska on Sept. 21, 1996, as the #1 gridiron win in Sun Devil history. (51%) of the respondents selected the Nebraska victory, while only (29%) picked the 22-15 Rose Bowl conquest of Michigan on New Year's Day 1987. (14%) of our fans chose the 1975 Fiesta Bowl win over Nebraska as ASU's all-time greatest football victory. The remaining 6% who took part in the poll divided their votes between the 1970 Peach Bowl win over North Carolina (3%), and the Sun Devils' first-ever Pac-10 victory in 1978 (a 20-7 triumph over USC that also drew 3% of the vote).
The epic shutout over Nebraska was the springboard that launched the '96 Sun Devils to an undefeated regular season, their second Pac-10 championship and second Rose Bowl berth. In that Nebraska game, the Sun Devil defense played with maniacal ferocity, limiting the mighty Huskers to 226 total yards, forcing six fumbles (recovering three) and recording a school-record three safeties. Offensively, Jake Plummer passed for 292 yards and the game's only touchdown, as the Devils controlled the ball for over 36 minutes. The fourth-largest crowd in Sun Devil Stadium history (74,089) saw ASU end the Huskers' 26-game winning streak and 37-game unbeaten string. The '96 Devils ended up in Pasadena, where a last-second 20-17 loss to Ohio State denied Arizona State its first-ever national championship.
Ten years before, on January 1, 1987, coach John Cooper's Sun Devils made the school's initial Rose Bowl appearance. On the strength of two Jeff Van Raaphorst touchdown passes to Bruce Hill, ASU knocked off Michigan to polish off a 10-1-1 season that earned the Sun Devils a #4 national ranking. In rallying the Devils from an early 15-3 deficit, Van Raaphorst earned game MVP honors, while the ASU defense blanked the Wolverines in the second half, limiting them to -5 rushing yards and intercepting a pair of Jim Harbaugh passes.
As glamorous as the Nebraska and Michigan victories were, many ASU historians point to two bowl wins in the 1970s as the games that truly elevated Sun Devil football to national prominence. On December 26, 1975, coach Frank Kush's Devils delivered a delightful day-late Christmas present to their fans, with a 17-14 win over Nebraska in the fifth Fiesta Bowl game. A 10-yard Fred Mortensen-to-John Jefferson touchdown pass, a two-point conversion, and Danny Kush's 29-yard field goal helped ASU erase a 14--6 fourth-quarter deficit. In so doing, the Sun Devils capped off a perfect 12--0 season, and finished with a #2 national ranking, which still rates as the highest in ASU history.
In December 1970, the Sun Devils played the school's first game ever on the east coast, accepting a bid to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. Despite a raging snowstorm, Arizona State outscored North Carolina 27-0 in the second half, en route to a dominating 48-26 victory over a good Tar Heels' team. Bob Thomas and Monroe Eley combined for five rushing touchdowns, as the Sun Devils' superior speed overwhelmed Carolina. "This game is going to mean a lot to us in the future," said coach Kush afterward. "I think that we've proven now that we can go on a football field with anyone in the nation."
Kush led ASU football into the Pac-10 in 1978, but it wasn't until the sixth game of that season that the Sun Devils recorded their first win over a conference foe as a member of the Pac-10. With stars such as QB Mark Malone, WR John Mistler, and RBs Robert Weathers and Gerald Riggs on offense, and ends Al Harris and Bob Kohrs on defense, ASU knocked off Southern California 20--7 at Sun Devil Stadium in October of `78. It proved to be USC's only loss, en route to a 12-1 season and a share of that year's national championship.
Up next: the Sun Devils' top football win of 1999.