In rivalry games, hardly anything is certain until the end.
But, in the final minute of ASU’s 58-21 win over UA, ASU football fans were assured by Sun Devil Stadium public address announcer Jeff Scott that the Pac-12 Championship Game would be played in Tempe. Scott announced that tickets for the title bout would be for sale after the game and the announcement was followed by a thunderous standing ovation.
Sealing home-field advantage wasn’t the only thing guaranteed by the win, as the Sun Devils (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) also retained the Territorial Cup for another year.
“We made some mistakes tonight, but we dominated the game,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “Dominated the line of scrimmage. Controlled both sides of the football.”
ASU went into the game without senior running back Marion Grice, who injured his foot at the end of last week’s win over UCLA. But Grice’s absence hardly seemed to matter.
ASU sophomore running back D.J. Foster took Grice’s place and had 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“Some people forget how good (Foster) is and how good he runs the football,” said ASU redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly.
Senior tight end De’Marieya Nelson also lined up at halfback and had 35 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Graham said Nelson played like a “big power, bruising back,” which was “a good deal to see.”
The Sun Devils’ defense held on as well.
Despite a typical rushing performance from UA redshirt junior running back Ka’Deem Carey — 157 yards and one touchdown — ASU prevented the Wildcats from mounting a comeback. UA converted just nine of its 18 third-down attempts and were 0-for-3 on fourth-down tries. The Sun Devils’ secondary intercepted three of UA senior quarterback B.J. Denker’s passes.
“Our mindset is full-speed, every play,” said ASU senior safety Alden Darby, who came up with a pick. “With those stops like that, it just shows how hard of a defense we are and how much we bring it every single play.”
ASU freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez hit a 38-yard field goal to give the Sun Devils a 3-0 lead with 10:23 left. The Sun Devils then sacked Denker twice on UA’s first drive and forced the Wildcats to punt.
The next set of drives followed the same suit. Gonzalez nailed another field goal, this time from 21-yards out, while the Wildcats punted once again despite crossing midfield.
ASU’s offense got going after that, though. Kelly hit senior tight end Darwin Rogers for a 38-yard touchdown, and on the next drive, Foster scored on a 14-yard touchdown run. ASU had a lapse for one series that resulted in a punt, but the Sun Devils got back on track and capped off a five-play, 31-yard drive that ended with Nelson’s 1-yard rush, which put ASU up 27-0.
The Wildcats finally got on the scoreboard with Denker’s 1-yard touchdown run off an option play with 3:44 left in the half. Both teams cooled off for a bit, but Gonzalez hit another field goal from 23 yards out to give the Sun Devils a 30-7 lead heading into halftime.
Though ASU was up 23 points over the Wildcats heading into the locker room, it didn’t seem like the game was out of reach at that point.
UA started the second half by picking up 70 rushing yards on its first drive. Carey capped the drive with an 8-yard touchdown run, which made the score 30-14.
The Sun Devils went three-and-out on their next drive. With momentum rising on the Wildcats’ side, UA was driving and knocking on ASU’s door.
But just as the Wildcats threatened to get back in the game with another touchdown, ASU redshirt sophomore safety Damarious Randall jumped Denker’s pass on third-and-four, and returned the interception for a 64-yard touchdown, making the score 37-14 in ASU’s favor.
“We were up in man coverage and I was just reading my keys,” Randall said. “The quarterback threw it and I just went in and got it.”
UA answered and cut ASU’s lead to 37-21 on redshirt junior Garic Wharton’s touchdown, which came off a Denker fumble, but that’s all the Wildcats had left for the game.
After ASU’s offense punted twice in a row, it was resuscitated when Kelly threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong, which put the Sun Devils on top by a 44-21 margin. On the Sun Devils’ next drive, Foster recorded his second touchdown on a 7-yard run and the Sun Devils led 51-21.
Then, Kelly threw an interception to UA redshirt junior cornerback Jonathan McKnight, but ASU redshirt senior defensive back Osahon Irabor intercepted the ball back a few plays later and set up Nelson’s second touchdown on a 1-yard rush, which put the Sun Devils up 58-21.
To go along with his rushing performance, Nelson also had two catches for 26 yards, two tackles on special teams and recovered a fumble that he forced.
ASU had 478 yards of total offense compared to UA’s 424. Kelly finished the game 13-of-25 passing for 274 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Denker was 15-for-30 with 175 passing yards and 87 rushing yards.
ASU finished the month of November undefeated and are riding a seven-game winning streak. As Graham has indicated in many media sessions during the 7-game stretch, the Sun Devils’ success accumulates as the players learn to trust his system. The win over UA was just another example of this.
“I’m proud of how our guys have bought in with class, character and toughness,” Graham said. “How we get there is discipline. This is a disciplined team.”
Now that the Sun Devils have secured the Territorial Cup for the second straight year, ASU shifts its focus to its rematch with No. 8 Stanford in the first Pac-12 Championship Game hosted by a Pac-12 South school.
After all, it’s the last game standing in the Sun Devils’ way for the Pac-12 title and a berth to the Rose Bowl.
“(Tonight’s) game meant a lot to us tonight,” Graham said, “I know it’s the most important game to our fans but it’s not the one we’re after. The one we’re after is next week.”
- Kelly set a school record for points responsible in a season after his touchdown pass to Rogers and has accounted for 212 of ASU’s points in 2013.
- Gonzalez set the ASU record for most consecutive field goals with 18 and counting.
- Graham ruled Grice out of the Pac-12 Championship Game against Stanford and said he would be ready for the Sun Devils’ bowl game, which would be in late December at the soonest.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Josh_Nacion
Correction: Because of a reporting error, a previous version of this article stated that UA quarterback B.J. Denker was a redshirt freshman. The story has been updated with the correct year.