Arizona holds off Sun Devils to win Territorial Cup, Pac-12 South titlePosted: Updated:
TUCSON, Ariz. -- A rivalry known for its unpredictability lived up to that billing on Friday afternoon.
After the dust settled on a wild back-and-forth affair, the 12th ranked Arizona Wildcats (10-2, 7-2) had held on to edge arch rival No. 13 Arizona State 42-35. A change at quarterback helped get the Sun Devils (9-3, 6-3) back in the game, but ultimately it was not enough to overcome several key mistakes as the Wildcats took home the coveted Territorial Cup for the first time since 2011.
More importantly, the win, coupled with Stanford's upset of No. 8 UCLA, gave Arizona their first Pac-12 South division championship. The Wildcats will next travel to Santa Clara, Calif., where they will face the North division champion Oregon Ducks for the Pac-12 title.
"Our program is about winning championships, so obviously I'm very disappointed today," said ASU head coach Todd Graham. "This game is the most important game. Every day it is emphasized. To make so many mistakes made it tough."
The miscues started right off the bat for the Sun Devils.
On the third play of the game, ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly was sacked by Scooby Wright, forcing a fumble. The ball was picked up by Anthony Lopez and run back 25 yards for the UofA touchdown.
"We started off the wrong way by turning it over," Graham said. "Holding on to the ball, and they get seven points right off the get go."
The Sun Devil defense picked up the early slack. After ASU punted on their next drive, the Sun Devil defense was able to push the Wildcats back, forcing a punt from their three-yard line.
An impressive Jaelen Strong reception through good coverage soon gave ASU a first and goal from the Wildcat three. However, four straight runs failed to break the goal line and ASU turned it over on downs.
"What killed us was getting the ball at the one-inch line and not scoring. That's really bad," said Graham.
That field position, though, would come into play shortly. Anu Solomon mishandled the shotgun snap on Arizona's fourth play of the ensuing drive, and ASU defensive lineman Demetrius Cherry recovered the at the two-yard line and ran it in for the tying touchdown.
The roller coaster ride was only just beginning.
Facing a third and four on the next drive, Solomon threw to receiver Samajie Grant. ASU safety Damarious Randall jumped the route aiming for the interception. He missed. Grant sprinted, bobbed, and weaved his way down the field for a 69-yard touchdown.
"We had it matched up," Graham said. "We hit the quarterback right in the mouth, but we guessed short. You can't go underneath like that and miss the ball by an inch.
Keeping up with the madcap pace, Kelly, shaking off a few prior overthrows downfield, found Strong for a 50-yard gain as Strong made a leaping catch. That duo connected again to cap the drive with a one-handed touchdown catch by Strong tying the game.
Arizona would strike again late in the half thanks to a big special teams play. Tellas Jones partially blocked a Matt Haack punt, setting Arizona up at the ASU 30-yard line. On a fourth and short, ASU loaded the middle, but Arizona running back Nick Wilson popped the run outside for a 21-yard touchdown, the first of three scores on the day for the freshman.
It appeared that the Wildcats would get a chance to extend their lead heading into the half, but DeVonte' Neal muffed a 50-yard Haack punt, and ASU recovered at the Arizona 12-yard line. Kelly soon found Demario Richard for a seven-yard touchdown, and the game went into halftime tied at 21-21.
Unfortunately for ASU, late in the first half, sophomore SPUR linebacker Laiu Moeakiola was injured and left the game. Already without safety Jordan Simone, the ASU defense would suffer.
"When our SPUR back went out, it hurt us a lot," said Randall. "He's very good in run support on the edge. They took advantage of that."
Wilson gashed the Sun Devils on the third quarter's first possession, running five times for 24 yards including his second touchdown of the day.
After ASU kicker Zane Gonzalez missed a 45-yard field goal on the next possession, Wilson wasted no time in making the Sun Devils pay. He ripped off a 72-yard touchdown, part of his 178 yards on the night.
Now down 14 points late in the third quarter, Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell made a move that many ASU fans had been hoping for: they put in Mike Bercovici.
"Mike (Norvell) and I made a change with Taylor because we just felt like we needed a spark," Graham said. "Being behind, we thought that Mike's ability to throw the ball would help us. We were trying anything. Whether that was a mistake or not, I don't know."
"I'm always ready on the sideline. They called my number," said Bercovici. "All I had to do was go in there and move the chains."
Bercovici had earned praise by leading ASU to wins over USC and Stanford earlier in the year when Kelly was out with a broken foot. Now, he had his chance to become an ASU legend, and as he went out for his first drive with just over three minutes left in the third quarter, Graham had a simple message for the redshirt junior.
"'Own the ball. Get points on the board. We're going to go win this game,'" said Bercovici. "There's no time to think about the circumstances. I just have to go in there and try to get the team moving in the right direction."
He completed all five of his passes for 40 yards on a six-play, 65-yard drive that ended with a two-yard connection with Kody Kohl to bring ASU to within 35-28. Momentum was building, and he soon had a chance to tie when ASU regained possession at their eight-yard line.
Perhaps pressing a bit, he forced a ball into coverage that was intercepted by Jourdon Grandon and returned to the ASU 16. Two plays later, Solomon found Grant again, and the Wildcats regained a two-score edge.
"As a quarterback, it's unacceptable to turn the ball over, especially in the fourth quarter," said Bercovici.
Time was running out for the Sun Devils.
Bercovici led ASU down the field, converted a fourth and four along the way, and found De'Marieya Nelson for a touchdown with just over five minutes left.
The Sun Devil defense did their job next, forcing a UofA punt that Kyle Middlebrooks returned to the Sun Devil 43-yard line.
"You gotta go 50 yards to tie or win," Graham said. "We had our opportunity but didn't make plays."
ASU drove down the the Wildcat 40-yard line before they faced a fourth and 12. Bercovici's pass went out of bounds,
"We sent a lot of guys vertical," Bercovici said. "There was a misunderstanding on that sideline if he was going to go or comeback. At the end of the day, it's my job to put the ball in a spot where he can catch it."
The Territorial Cup was heading south back to Tucson.
"At the end of the day we had our chances, but couldn't get it done," said Graham.
"We fell short, and it's unacceptable," Bercovici said. "I'm always going to put in on my shoulders."
For ASU, the loss capped a disappointing stretch following their marquee win over Notre Dame on Nov. 8. After that win, ASU rose to No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings, but a stunning upset loss to Oregon State and a lackadaisical win over Washington State tempered what once had the look of a special season.
Now, the Sun Devils will await their final bowl destination and attempt to build momentum for 2015.
"9-3. It's a winning season, but our expectation is 15-0. We know we could have achieved more," Bercovici said.
"Whatever bowl game we are in, we're going to get that 10th win for the seniors."