For all the talk about how Arizona State would handle Navy's triple-option offense, the real mismatch turned out to be when the Sun Devils had the ball.
Taylor Kelly threw four touchdown passes and ran for a fifth score and Arizona State scored touchdowns on its first nine possessions to win a bowl game for the first time in seven years, a 62-28 victory over the Midshipmen in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Saturday.
“We couldn't stop them,” linebacker Brye French said. “Everything that they would try, they just dominated us in basically every aspect of the game. It was very frustrating but you have to give them credit. They had a great game plan. They executed on everything. They had the deep ball, they had the run, they had the short pass. They had a great game plan and we just couldn't stop them.”
Offensive MVP Marion Grice ran for 159 yards and two touchdowns for the Sun Devils (8-5), who used their fast-paced spread offense to gain 648 yards and average more than 10 yards a play through three quarters.
The Sun Devils won their most games since 2007 and won a bowl for the first time since the 2005 Insight Bowl against Rutgers. They also capped their first season under coach Todd Graham by beating rival Arizona and winning a bowl, a feat they had accomplished just once in the past 33 seasons.
“This win means a lot — 1978 is a long time,” said Rashad Ross, who caught three touchdown passes. “I'm just glad to be on this team, the team that finally did it: Beat U of A and then go on and win a bowl game.”
The Midshipmen (8-5) have lost five of their last six bowl games. Among the few highlights for Navy were Keenan Reynolds' 3-yard TD pass to Matt Aiken in the first half and a 95-yard kickoff return for a score by Gee Gee Greene in the third quarter.
“It's a low right now for us,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We're pretty emotional in the locker room, just the sadness of knowing it's an end.”
Rashad Ross, who grew up in nearby Vallejo, started and ended the first-half outburst with touchdown receptions. His 16-yard catch from Kelly capped a 75-yard game-opening drive and he got behind the Navy defense for a 52-yard score in the final minute of the half to make it 34-7. Ross then caught a 50-yard TD pass on Arizona State's first drive of the second half to make it 41-7.
Grice, playing with a heavy heart after his brother was murdered last week in Houston, scored on a 10-yard run in the first quarter and a 39-yarder in the third. He had 19 touchdowns this season, with 11 coming on the ground.
“We opened our arms out for Marion,” Kelly said. “We're all with him. He's in our prayers and our family. He's having a hard time in the locker room or he'd be out here. He's all into this program. He wanted to come out and play for his brother and his family and also our brothers.”
Arizona State had seven touchdown drives of at least 60 yards in the first three quarters and had just three third-down plays in that span as Kelly easily picked apart the defense. The longest drive took just 2:43 and one of the quickest came at the end of the half when the Sun Devils went 80 yards in two plays covering 19 seconds after Nick Sloan missed a 33-yard field goal for Navy.
Kelly finished 17 for 19 for 268 yards, ending the season completing a school-record 67.1 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 81 yards, scoring on a 1-yard run that made it 21-0.
“They had us on our heels the whole time,” Niumatalolo said. “When we tried to get people up on the run, they'd throw it over our hands. We played people in the zone, then the quarterback would pull it. They had a great plan and they executed it.”
The Midshipmen had a few opportunities to keep the game close on offense in the first half but Greene was unable to hold onto a pass in the end zone on fourth-and-7 from the 31 in the first quarter and Reynolds lost 3 yards on a third-and-1 keeper from the 8 before Sloan's missed field goal.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot a couple times when we couldn't score,” Reynolds said. “We could have put ourselves in the game … but if you don't score points you don't win the game, no matter what goes on on the opposite side of the football.”
Sen. John McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot who represents Arizona in Congress, handled the pregame toss. Instead of using a coin, the game sponsored by Kraft uses an Oreo, with one side being a chocolate cookie and the other vanilla.
Before that, Pat Tillman Sr. presented Sun Devils defensive tackle Will Sutton the Pac-12 defensive player of the year award named after his son, the former ASU star who died as an Army ranger in Afghanistan.
Sutton had 2 1/2 sacks to win defensive player of the game as the Sun Devils kept Navy grounded until the reserves took over on defense in the fourth quarter.