ASU vs. UA: Looking back on the Territorial Cup

As one of the nation's strongest rivalries, the Sun Devils' and the Wildcats' history predates Arizona's statehood

Every year, ASU and UA play for the Territorial Cup, the second oldest trophy in college football.

The rivalry dates back to 1899, before Arizona achieved statehood. The Tempe Normal School of Arizona, which later became ASU, defeated UA by a score of 11-2 in the first matchup 121 years ago.

Since then, the two schools have grown a deep resentment for each other — one the New York Times calculated in 2019 as No. 1 on a list for the nation's "strongest rivalries."

In 1958, there was a proposition on ballot that proposed Arizona State College should become ASU. UA, the only university in the state at the time, strongly opposed it. 

So on the day of ASU's first game at Sun Devil Stadium, a handful of UA fans broke in and burned "No on 200" into the grass. Given that the Phoenix population was rapidly increasing, Prop 200 passed and ASU went on to shutout UA 47-0 in Tucson later that year.

“This is what makes college football unique," ASU football head coach Herm Edwards told The State Press after the 2018 Territorial Cup game. "There are rivalry games that go down from generation to generation to generation, and kids talk about it and moms and grandpas and grandmas talk about it. When you can win one, it’s good.”

Although the Wildcats have a 49-43-1 series advantage over the Sun Devils to date, both teams have had their share of sensational victories. 

Shane Dale, a contributor to territorial-sports.com, is driven by his passion for the rivalry. His new book, "Rich Rod vs. Graham: Six Years of America's Most Intense Rivalry," is now available to pre-order. 

“1975 was the probably the biggest game in rivalry history,” Dale said. “Both teams were ranked in the top 15, and there was a lot on the line." 

At that time, ASU was undefeated and on the brink of a Fiesta Bowl bid. Arizona featured a respectable 9-1 record and was looking to play spoiler.

The game featured "The Catch" by ASU wide receiver John Jefferson, which is regarded as one of the most memorable moments in the game’s history. 

Jefferson left his feet in the back of the end zone to haul in a 9-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Dennis Sproul in the final moments of the first half. "The Catch" helped propelled the Sun Devils to a 24-21 Territorial Cup victory. ASU went on to defeat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, capping a perfect 12-0 season.

The Sun Devils finished the 1970s with an 8-2 record against the Wildcats. But ASU's success against their in-state rival didn't last for much longer as UA would control the next decade of the rivalry.

“Wildcats fans would consider the '80s the golden era,” Dale said. “The crazy thing is that ASU was seemingly the better team most of those years, but UA just showed up and beat them year after year.”

Wildcats fans enjoyed an 8-0-1 run against the Sun Devils in the 1980s as UA knocked the Sun Devils out of the Rose Bowl twice during the decade.

And even when ASU punched their ticket to the Rose Bowl in 1986, the Wildcats beat them anyway, highlighted by Chuck Cecil’s 106-yard pick-six.

Although the rivalry has maintained its importance within the state of Arizona, the game has diminished in national relevance.

“It has everything to do with the fact that neither school is good at the same time,” Dale said. "It's not Alabama vs. Auburn or Ohio State vs. Michigan where a national championship is on the line. Rarely is there more than bragging rights or a low-level bowl game on the line."

The rivalry's future relevancy

From Dale's perspective, in order for the rivalry to be relevant again, both programs need to be trending upward. 

"You can find two to three year periods when both teams were good, but it's hard to find any sustained era when both teams were good," Dale said. "Unfortunately, especially on the UA side, it doesn't look like we're getting there anytime soon."

ASU football has improved its recruiting since Edwards took helm in 2017, winning more than seven games in 2019 for the first time since 2014.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats have struggled in recruiting and have not made a bowl game since 2017 under head coach Kevin Sumlin.

But Dale said the Wildcats may have a glimmer of hope in sophomore quarterback Grant Gunnell. Last season Gunnell threw just one interception in 155 pass attempts. If Gunnell can match ASU sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels’ level of play — Daniels was named to the Pac-12 preseason all-second team — the rivalry could have an intriguing storyline for the next few years to come.

But, as former ASU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales explains it, a win over the Wildcats is never a dull accomplishment. No matter what state the rivalry is in.

“It’s really fun beating those guys," Gonzales said to the State Press after the 2019 Territorial Cup game. "Any chance that we can pull away from them, I think it’s outstanding.”

The two teams are scheduled to face each other Dec. 11 in Tucson.


Reach the reporter at hdweber@asu.edu and follow @HaydenWeber8 on Twitter.

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