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The 1996 campaign was a magical one for Arizona State.
The Sun Devils finished the regular season undefeated and claimed the Pac-10 title outright for just the second time as a member. There were however, some close calls along the way.
One of those came on this day 25 years ago. One week after rallying from 21 points down to beat UCLA, the Sun Devils erased a 14-point deficit to top USC in double-overtime, 48-35.
Setting the Stage
Arizona State was a perfect 6-0 as it arrived at Sun Devil Stadium on Oct. 19, 1996. After beginning the year ranked 20th, the Sun Devils had moved into the top five at No. 4.
USC was coming off a Pac-10 title and a Rose Bowl victory in 1995, but was just 4-2 and unranked as it made the trip to Tempe. For a large portion of the day, the Trojans looked to be reasserting themselves into the Rose Bowl chase.
Sun Devils Rally
Throughout the afternoon, Arizona State had never led as it faced a decisive drive down 28-21. With 90 seconds remaining however, Arizona State drew even for the third time on Terry Battle’s third touchdown of the day.
With the contest knotted 28-28, the Arizona State defense held firm and forced overtime. In the first overtime period, the teams traded touchdown passes. After USC’s Brad Otton found Rodney Sermons on a 10-yard scoring strike, Arizona State responded with a 6-yard connection from Jake Plummer to Keith Poole.
Plummer passed for 277 yards. Poole caught seven passes for 103 yards, but it was Battle who did the heavy lifting for the Sun Devils. Battle finished with 184 yards rushing and four touchdowns, including the 25-yard scamper on the first play of the second overtime that gave Arizona State its first lead, 42-35.
On 3rd-and-6 for USC from the Arizona State 21-yard-line, it looked as though the Sun Devils were two plays from securing victory. They needed only one.
Under pressure from the Arizona State defense, Otton tried to throw the ball to the flat. Otton’s arm appeared to be shoveling the ball forward, but Arizona State freshman defensive back Courtney Jackson took nothing for granted. Jackson scooped up the ball, which was ruled a fumble, and went 85 yards the other way for the game-sealing touchdown.
USC used a touchdown pass from Otton to John Allred and a touchdown run from Quincy Woods to take an early 14-0 lead. In the second quarter, Arizona State drew even on Battle touchdown runs of 32 and 18 yards.
After a scoreless third, Otton and Chris Miller hooked up for a 29-yard touchdown to put USC in front. Following an Arizona State tying touchdown pass from Plummer to tight end Steve Bush, USC’s R. Jay Soward returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a score.
For USC, the loss to Arizona State served as the first of three overtime contests during what would be a forgettable season. After beating Washington State the following week, the Trojans lost three straight games before closing the year with an overtime win over Notre Dame to finish 6-6.
Arizona State would roll over its next four opponents to go 11-0 and ascend to No. 2 in the country. A heartbreaking loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl would keep the Sun Devils from their first national championship.
In 1996, Arizona State found a way to win just about every week. Its first-ever overtime contest was an absolute thriller played on this day a quarter-century ago.
Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.