Arizona State surges back to beat Arizona 42-30, reclaim Territorial Cup

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ASU RB Demario Richard runs against Arizona (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) ASU RB Demario Richard runs against Arizona (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

If it were the end, it would be a thrilling way to go out.

A season that began with dire expectations and a cloud of uncertainty, may soon come to an end with the program on a major upswing, and potentially, a head coaching vacancy to fill.

The future of Arizona State's Todd Graham should be known in the next few days, but for now, the Sun Devils are enjoying having the coveted Territorial Cup back in Tempe.

Arizona State overcame a sluggish start and a 10-point halftime deficit to beat rival Arizona 42-30 on Saturday. Offensively, ASU turned to the legs of Demario Richard, who ran for 151 yards and two touchdowns after halftime while the Sun Devil defense locked down a Wildcat team without star quarterback Khalil Tate for most of the second half.

The victory improved ASU’s record to 7-5 on the year, including an impressive 6-3 mark in conference play, and ensured the program’s first winning season since 2014. In doing so, ASU locked up a second place finish in the Pac-12 South division, three spots better than their spot in the preseason media poll.

“We exceeded expectations,” said Richard. “We should have won more, but we came out on top.”

The question now remains was it all enough to save Graham’s job.

On the heels of two consecutive disappointing years, the heat was on Graham to turn things around in 2017. This season has been a rollercoaster, with a 1-2 start followed by a stretch that saw ASU upset No. 5 Washington, No. 24 Oregon, and division rival Utah. In between were disheartening losses to USC and UCLA.

“We’ve accomplished a lot,” Graham said. “We beat some really good football teams this year.”

That list now includes the Wildcats, who also end the regular season 7-5. ASU’s archrivals had also exceeded their bleak preseason outlook thanks to the midseason emergence of Tate as one of the nation’s best playmakers. Arizona entered Saturday’s game as a slight favorite to retain the Territorial Cup they earned with a win in last year’s matchup, but the Wildcats ultimately could not overcome early blunders in the second half.

“We started out slow, but we knew that they had to play us for 60 minutes,” said ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins. “We got a lot momentum there coming out of the half. That was the turning point of the game. We just handled business.”

The Wildcats jumped out to an early 14-0 lead thanks to rushing touchdowns by Tate and Zach Green. With their backs against the wall, Wilkins connected with Frank Darby on a 48-yard bomb that helped to spur ASU’s first score, an 18-yard touchdown strike from Wilkins to Kyle Williams.

ASU’s defense would settle down in the second quarter, limiting the Wildcats to a field goal before Kalen Ballage’s touchdown run closed the gap to 17-14.

However, Arizona would find the endzone once again before the half. A 42-yard Tate pass was hauled in by Tyrell Johnson, setting UofA up deep in ASU territory, and J.J. Taylor would score from 15 yards on the next play to extend the lead to 10 at halftime.

Down two scores to a rival that had embarrassed them the year before, with their head coach’s fate hanging over like a dark cloud, it would have been easy for ASU to pack it in.

But they were not phased. Not this time.

“We’ve been here before,” said Wilkins of the mood in the locker room at the break. “We’re not going to sulk or anything being down. None of that. It’s just perseverance.”

Well, and some injury luck.

To open the second half, Tate remained on the sideline and Brandon Dawkins took over as quarterback for Arizona. Dawkins had engineered the win over ASU in 2016, but the dropoff in playmaking ability on this day was clear.

“He got hurt and banged up,” said Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez of Tate. “He tried to go, but couldn’t go. So the other guy went in.”

The Dawkins-led Wildcats went three-and-out on their first possession of the second half, and a bobbled snap on the ensuing punt resulted in an easy block for the Sun Devils that gave them the ball at the Wildcat 5-yard-line.

“We are a Division I team and we can’t cut a snap and punt the ball,” Rodriguez said. “The kids are trying, but it is just remarkable.”.

Two Richard runs later, ASU was back in the endzone and back in the game.

On the next Wildcat drive, Dawkins was quickly intercepted by Demonte King. That set up a Wilkins touchdown pass to N’Keal Harry that put ASU ahead 28-24.

Feeling the heat, Rodriguez then put Tate back into the game, but the Wildcats’ offensive fortunes did not improve.

“He came back in the second half, but we knew he was kind of banged up,” said ASU senior safety Chad Adams of Tate. “We prepared for both quarterbacks.”

It was then that ASU turned the keys fully over to Richard, and as he has in each of the last three games, he produced. Following runs of 11 and 35 yards to open the drive, he capped the possession with a 6-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 35-24.

“We just had to get our groove,” said Richard, who ran for 165 yards on the day. “Once we got our groove, it was over with.”

“We just ran the ball really effectively in the second half, and that helped us seal the game,” said Wilkins.

Dawkins would make things interesting in the early fourth quarter when he scored on a 50-yard touchdown run to make it a 5-point game with 13 minutes left in regulation.

“It’s kind of like the same exact situation from two years ago,” Dawkins said, who entered the 2015 Territorial Cup game off the bench. “I just have to come out and play. I’m always preaching the next man has to be able to step up and take the reins and be able to go full speed. That’s kind of what I needed to do.”

That would be the lone scoring drive for the Wildcats in the second half, as ASU’s defense would clamp down.

“We played against Dawkins last year,” Adams said. He’s an effective quarterback. He can run just like Tate, and they ran the same offense. We just stuck to our game plan.”

ASU rode Richard’s legs into Wildcat territory three drives later, and Wilkins capped that with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Harry that sealed the victory.

“The team that physically dominates, wins this game,” Graham said.

With the game won, Graham and the underclassmen made sure that the spotlight fell on his seniors during their final home game.

“It’s awesome to get this for these guys, since they’ve put in so much time," said Wilkins, who threw for 163 yards. "We’ve been through so many summers together. This was special for me to get this win for these guys.”

“I’m proud of these seniors for getting this program back on track to where it needs to be,” Graham said. “I couldn’t be more proud to be their coach.”

Whether he stays the coach will likely be known soon. But count his players as those advocating for his return.

“It’s been a blessing to have him as a coach,” Wilkins said. “I’m sure it will continue.”

“I’m grateful for him. I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else," Richard said. “He changed the program around. I wouldn’t hire anybody else.”

But if this was the finale of the Todd Graham era, Richard did his part to make the victory special.

"I wanted to send my coach out with a bang."

NOTES:

  • Richard went over 100 yards for the fourth consecutive game on a 63-yard run to open the game’s final drive.“I thought Demario was going to make it the whole way, but I think he ran out of gas around midfield,” joked Graham after the game.
  • Richard needs just 23 yards in the bowl game to become the third Sun Devils with multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons in their careers
  • Harry ended the game with an even 1,000 yards receiving on the season, just the 14th 1,000-yard season in ASU history.

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