PHOENIX - After this Saturday's ASU-UCLA football game at the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, Calif., former All-American Sun Devil quarterback Jake Plummer predicts that ASU's current quarterback will be able to deliver the same speech that he gave to his team 17 years ago.
"I just remember leaving the Rose Bowl, and before we took off, I had the bus driver stop. And I said, ‘Hey everybody, look back there. That's the Rose Bowl. We're coming back, and there's no one stopping us,'"
Plummer recalled telling his teammates just hours after ASU completed a three-touchdown comeback to defeat UCLA 42-34 in 1996.
On that day, Plummer ran, caught, and threw for a touchdown against the Bruins to improve ASU's record to 6-0. The Sun Devils would advance to their second-ever Rose Bowl game that season with a perfect 11-0 record, thanks largely to their star QB, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist.
On Saturday, ASU can move within one game of returning to the Rose Bowl game that it hasn't competed in since that '96 season.
A win over No. 14 UCLA on the Bruins' home field – the same field on which the actual Rose Bowl game itself is played – would give the 8-2 Sun Devils their first-ever Pac-12 South championship and set up a game with the eventual Pac-12 North champions to decide who will advance to the bowl nicknamed The Granddaddy of Them All.
Plummer believes the Sun Devils are up to the challenge – but it won't be easy against UCLA, which hasn't lost at home this season and has a lot of young, talented players on both offense and defense.
Plummer said UCLA quarterback and Chandler High School graduate Brett Hundley, a 220-pound sophomore who is very difficult to tackle, reminds him of a quarterback he competed against during his NFL days with the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos.
"He's like (former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback) Donovan McNabb, where you've got him corralled, and bam, he's out of there," he said. "It gets frustrating for a defense, so tackling well is going to be huge. But that's what Arizona State is doing so well right now on defense."
And ASU has a pretty talented quarterback of its own – junior Taylor Kelly who, like Plummer, is an Idaho native and is efficient at both running and passing the ball.
"When Taylor Kelly uses his legs, I think it's huge," Plummer said. "UCLA's defense is tough – they've got some athletes over there that make it hard for you to stay in rhythm. But when he keeps the ball and takes off, and gets a couple huge first downs – that's what he's been doing well all year, and it'll be a big chance for him to do it again against UCLA."
Perhaps the only area in which UCLA is vulnerable, according to Plummer, is in its youth and inexperience. While the Sun Devils are loaded with juniors and seniors, the Bruins play many freshmen and sophomores.
"The one weakness they have is they're young, and sometimes they'll make some mistakes and get themselves in some tough spots," he said.
If ASU can exploit UCLA's youth, limit its mistakes, and give Kelly room to run, Plummer said the Sun Devils will be able to do what his team did – look back at the Rose Bowl stadium as the bus pulls away, knowing they have an excellent opportunity to return soon.
"Obviously, you've got to do everything you've got to do: take care of the ball and play some good, solid defense," he said. "It's going to be a good battle, a great football game, and I'm hoping ASU can pull it out."