TUCSON — ASU coach Todd Graham walks into every press conference with a Diet Dr. Pepper in hand.
That 12-ounce can likely tasted as sweet as Dublin Dr. Pepper Friday night.
Graham is now 1-0 against UA following the 41-34 victory. And his defense matured during the game.
The Sun Devils (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12) were aggressive throughout the game by throwing different blitzes in Graham’s multiple front defense and bumping the Wildcats (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) on the outside at the line of scrimmage.
It hurt them just as much as it helped them through three quarters. ASU had missed assignments and tackles and defensive penalties against a team ranked eighth in country in total offense.
Senior cornerback Deveron Carr had three penalties for 31 yards in the first quarter. Two of his penalties came on UA’s second drive, capped by sophomore running back Ka’Deem Carey’s leaping one-yard touchdown run.
“We’re just competing and sometimes you’re going to get those I guess,” We talked about it over there. Our guys are saying they’re just bumping them square and in front and the ball is being thrown. Sometimes with the timing, you can have some of those, but we’re going to play aggressive.”
The defense picked up two interceptions off UA senior quarterback Matt Scott on consecutive drives. The interceptions from redshirt senior safety Keelan Johnson and redshirt junior cornerback Osahon Irabor led to ASU’s 14 first-half points.
Redshirt senior linebacker Brandon Magee had a costly 15-yard late hit penalty on third down play that resulted in an interception by redshirt junior Osahon Irabor. ASU managed to hold UA to just a field goal as time expired in the first half. The Wildcats went on to score 13 unanswered points into the third quarter to take a 27-17 lead into the fourth quarter.
The game ultimately changed course when Johnson stripped Scott as the Wildcats reached the red zone. Carr scooped up the loose ball and revived any thoughts of an ASU victory.
“I thought he (Scott) was going to try and go out of bounds or hit the ground or do something like that to protect the ball since they had the lead,” Johnson said. “He just didn’t play smart with the football.”
“Oh well,” Magee added with a smile standing next to Johnson after the game.
Junior cornerback Robert Nelson ultimately sealed the victory. He was assigned to cover UA’s only 1,000-yard receiver in sophomore Austin Hill. Nelson picked up an interception off a pass tipped by Hill. The ASU bench erupted as Nelson raced down the sidelines to the two-yard line.
“I told Robert, we’re going to take our best guy and put him on their best guy,” Graham said. “We put him on Hill and he covered him. It was phenomenal. He got one pass interference, but I’m really proud of him. He has got unbelievable ability. He’s just raw. He’s just not played and as he plays, he’s going to get better and better.”
Nelson’s interception capped a 24-point fourth quarter for ASU as the defense stepped up to pull off the win.
“I was nervous the whole week,” Nelson said. “Usually when I’m nervous like that, I have good games. I haven’t been that nervous since I was at ULM (Louisiana-Monroe). It felt great. I can’t even explain it. I will remember this forever.”
Graham said teams can start to see the identity of ASU’s defense. He preaches turnovers consistently before every game and it proved to be the difference in its thrilling comeback.
“We just wanted to finish and we didn’t want to give up,” Carr said. “This is a different game. This is the Territorial Cup game. We took a loss last year and we most definitely wanted to bring that merchandise home to where it belongs.”
The Territorial Cup trophy will now sit in the Carson Student-Athlete Center for the next year.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com