Sun Devils emerge from chaotic fourth quarter with Territorial Cup win
TUCSON, Ariz. — The Territorial Cup just doesn’t feel right without a crazy finish.
This one might not quite be on the level of 2010 – when James Brooks blocked two extra points in a double-overtime victory for Arizona State – but it’s close. The Sun Devils trailed 40-21 when the fourth quarter began, then rattled off 20 unanswered to steal a 41-40 victory and secure a winning season in year one of the Herm Edwards Era.
Of course, that makes it sound a lot simpler than it actually was.
ASU couldn’t find much rhythm on offense for the first three quarters, even looking like they might get run right off the field at certain points of the game. But, as they have done all season, the Devils hung around. And when U of A finally opened the door, Arizona State seized the opportunity.
“We get down 21-40,” defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales explained, “and we had to call them up and tell them ‘look guys, this is a critical time in what we’re trying to build. You can either lay down, and they’re going to embarrass you, or you can fight back.'”
They fought back, but it certainly wasn’t conventional. Eno Benjamin finished the game with 80 yards on the ground, marking the first time since Sept. 8 that the Sun Devils have won a game where he rushed for under 150, and N’Keal Harry was held to just 55 yards through the air – his second lowest output of the season.
“I got on the phones with N’Keal early, because I didn’t want him to get frustrated,” offensive coordinator Rob Likens said. “Because I know, man, when you’re a big-time player, all you want to do – it’s not selfishness – you just want to help your team win.”
Thing is, both players still made a difference. Benjamin got into the end zone three times, giving him 15 touchdowns on the ground and 17 total scores this season. Harry had to make a more subtle impact, coming up with a couple big catches, but also simply as a massive target that the Arizona defenders had to direct their attention to all afternoon.
Benjamin’s final touchdown was the biggest. His game-winning 22-yard scamper with 3:08 left gave ASU the lead for the first time, coming just one play after Tyler Johnson recovered a J.J. Taylor fumble. The Arizona crowd had been loud all day, but they were pretty well overwhelmed by the gathering of Sun Devil fans in attendance from that point on.
Oh yeah, that came after a Brandon Ruiz field goal, a Manny Wilkins touchdown run, a two-point conversion, an Aashari Crosswell interception and a second Ruiz field goal. All in the fourth quarter.
It still wasn’t over though. These rivalry games never really are until the very last second. ASU failed to connect on the two-point conversion, and the Wildcats marched down to the Sun Devil 27 in the waning seconds, setting Josh Pollack up for a 45-yard attempt to win the game.
He pushed it wide as time expired, however, reinforcing the unwritten rule that there can’t be a Territorial Cup where both kickers escape unscathed.
This is the first time the road team has won a game in this series since 2012, and the fourth quarter effort, in particular, embodied many of the traits Edwards has instilled in his young group since he took over. That fact wasn’t lost on him in the postgame press conference.
“When you first get hired, these players don’t know who you are,” Edwards pointed out. “I’m the guy on the television. Manny Wilkins came to the press conference and I coached N’Keal Harry in the Under Armour game, but most of these kids know me as the guy on television. I never coached with anybody on the coaching staff and so you have to hire new coaches. I brought in a new defensive system. We had some offensive guys who had been here, but it’s about earning their trust and understanding that this is the way I’m going to do things. I’ve got to be consistent, and I think I’ve earned trust from these guys.”
Meanwhile, Wilkins gets to wrap up this series on a high note. The first three quarters weren’t great for him, by any means. But he hung in and made plays late. He has only the bowl game left in his Sun Devil career, but he’ll leave Tempe with a 3-2 record against Arizona during his time at ASU. And that probably feels even sweeter today, given the fact that things got heated between the two teams before the game even began.
“That’s just ignorant,” the senior quarterback noted, when asked about the trash talking before kickoff. “What I told them when we came in the locker room, I told the team, I said ‘listen, they’re going to start talking trash, they’re going to start doing all this. They’re trying to get a bowl game, they’re having a losing season. So when they start talking, take a step back and look him in his eyes like a psychopath. Look at him, just stare at him. And he’ll know what type of time we’re on’. And that’s what we did. Wasn’t a whole lot of trash talking on our side.”
With the victory, the Sun Devils sit at 7-5, awaiting their bowl invitation. The Wildcats drop to 5-7 in their first season under Kevin Sumlin.