It was finally Arizona State’s time. After a season riddled with last gasp defeats and fumbled opportunities, the football actually bounced in the Sun Devil’s favor during the Duel in the Desert.
And there could not have been a more fitting time to overcome all the demons of season’s past than to do so against in-state rival, Arizona, on their home turf.
As the season unfolded, Dennis Erickson’s maroon and gold squad didn’t just lose close football games. For some reason each week, a new way to lose was the topic of discussion the following week.
Although much of that discussion was swept under the rug as newly named starting quarterback, Brock Osweiler, exploded for 415 total yards and five touchdowns a week ago against UCLA.
But this is the Territorial Cup, a totally different entity than a comfortable home game against lowly UCLA.
Osweiler knew he was the starter for the entire week, and early on the pressure got to him. After only completing three of his first 15 passes, Osweiler began to utilize his mobility and athletic talents.
At some points Osweiler looked to have grease lathered on his entire jersey because even the conference’s best pass rusher, Ricky Elmore, struggled to corral “OZ”.
In crucial third down situations in the first half, Osweiler continued to miss and overshoot his targets. Erickson knew points were a premium against the arch-rival Wildcats, so he sent senior kicker Tom Weber out for a 52-yard field goal attempt.
The scoreboard was no longer deadlocked. Weber drilled it, just like 2007. Was the former Lou Groza recipient finally back?
If you were one of many asking that, he answered one more time just before halftime.
Weber split the uprights for the second time from 36-yards out and with only three ticks left before the halftime break.
Led by Vontaze Burfict, the Sun Devils forced Arizona to punt on every possession in the first half.
The Sun Devils left the field with their heads high and cheering on the gold clad fans that made the trip down to Tucson.
On the other sideline, Mike Stoops and his Wildcats had no answers to the Sun Devil’s defense.
“We can’t move the football against them,” Stoops said. “We’re going to have to figure out something to put points on the board, and get back into this game,” Stoops continued.
To be honest, Stoops was right. The Wildcats had no success against ASU’s defense, yet only six points separated the schools.
That margin proved to be no match for Arizona’s Nick Foles and Juron Criner. The quarterback and wide receiver tandem were on the same page in the third quarter, as the duo connected twice for 28 and 52 yards.
The Wildcats fought back and took hold of the lead as the fourth quarter began. Looking like the Weber of old, the senior was called upon again and added a third field goal from 38-yards to narrow the deficit to five.
As the game wound down the intensity, physicality, and determination of both squads defined this great rivalry once again. The hard-hitting, passion-filled nature of the game looked to take a toll on the Wildcats.
Oliver Aaron hit Greg Nwoko, forced a fumble, and recovered the ball for Arizona State.
The Sun Devils were in business with the ball at midfield, and plenty of time on the clock.
However, just when things seemed to be going ASU’s way, a late hit on Mike Willie was called. The Sun Devil’s huddle began to march off the yardage.
Erickson was frustrated with the mental error, one which plagued ASU all season long, but Osweiler calmly maneuvered ASU down the field, and kept the ball secure.
With ASU facing a second and 26, Osweiler found Marshall for 13 yards on a screen pass, and then escaped the pocket one play later picking up 14 yards to continue the drive.
Shortly after, Osweiler hit Jamal Miles on back-to-back plays to set ASU up with a first and goal situation.
After committing an earlier penalty, Mike Willie answered with a three-yard touchdown catch from Osweiler. The Sun Devils took the lead with that play, and even extended their lead with a pass from Osweiler to senior Kerry Taylor on the two-point conversion.
In Taylor’s last Territorial Cup, it was undoubtedly his best. Taylor led the Sun Devils in receiving with six catches for 112 yards, and a huge 54-yard completion to set up Weber’s third field goal.
As the Sun Devils know all too well, each and every point is critical, especially in a rivalry game. Taylor’s two points made the Duel in the Desert a three-point game.
With six minutes remaining in the fourth stanza, ASU huddled up. The entire team gathered around one man. The 6-foot-8 inch Brock Osweiler shouted out and demanded a victory.
For a true sophomore making his second career start, that scene was impressive.
The very next play was a fourth down and one. Mike Stoops and Arizona decided to go for it, and they were turned away by an energized ASU defense.
The Sun Devils sent Arizona’s offense to the sideline, as the ASU defense celebrated; but there was plenty of work to be done.
The Wildcats still had a ton of fight left in the Duel in the Desert, but each time the Sun Devils answered.
Weber was called upon for a fourth field goal. This time the kick was from 40-yards. Coming into the game, Weber was one of five from 40 yards or more.
Thursday was a different game entirely. Weber’s kick was true, and the Sun Devils held a 20-14 lead.
But with nearly three minutes remaining, the Sun Devils left too much time for an explosive U of A offense.
Even a discouraging fourth and three play could not stop the Wildcats. Nick Foles found David Douglas for seven yards and a critical first down.
Foles and the Wildcats were composed as the clock wound down. Arizona went back to the combination that worked on fourth down earlier, and Foles found his roommate, Douglas, who scored a game-tying touchdown with only 27 seconds remaining.
U of A tied the game in the waning minutes, and as ASU has found out no less than two times earlier this season, an extra point is not automatic.
Alex Zendejas was the hero of the ’09 Territorial Cup, but on Thursday night he was seen as a goat. His kick was blocked by the leaping James Brooks, and the score remained deadlocked.
The Duel in the Desert was always destined for overtime. The game was left unsettled, but not short of excitement.
One overtime was not enough as the two rivals exchanged field goals.
Zendejas responded after an earlier blocked kick, and Weber tied his own Arizona State kicking record with his fifth made field goal of the game.
But as the Sun Devils displayed all night, their determination and desire to overcome would prevail. Osweiler and the ASU offense trotted onto the field and knew a touchdown would put all the pressure on Arizona.
A big pass to Kerry Taylor set up the powerful ground attack with Cameron Marshall. Marshall has been a highlight reel player all year, but on Thursday night he earned the tough yards.
On the Sun Devil’s final drive, Marshall bulldozed his way into the end zone on two straight plays and propelled ASU back on top.
Weber connected on the extra point, and as the Sun Devils set out to do, the pressure switched to Stoops’ Arizona sideline.
Even after ASU linebacker Colin Parker saved a touchdown with a deflection, the Wildcats scored again.
The combination of Foles and Douglas was deadly. Arizona was an extra point away from tying the game and marching on, but the Wildcats would not get any closer.
Coming through once again was big James Brooks, the junior from Flagstaff.
Zendejas walked up to the kick with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a rattled mind from an earlier miss could not have helped.
All season long ASU ended up on the wrong side of countless last second games. Although this time, in the Territorial Cup, from the first snap, until the last kick, finally the Sun Devils were rewarded.
At last, the Sun Devils learned how to win the close one, and following the 30-29 victory, Erickson thanked the football gods.
“I guess the extra-point god got on our side, and we were able to block two [kicks]. What a football game. If you weren’t coaching in it, it would be really fun to watch.”
Erickson was right; the game was end-to-end entertainment with passion displayed on every single snap, but once again heart-wrenching. Maybe the football gods were on the Sun Devil’s side, but ASU earned the victory, and the celebration ensued.
After so many shoulda, woulda, coulda’s, the Sun Devils won in the only fashion they know: last second excitement involving a kicker.
However, this time, Arizona State was the recipient of not only good fortune, but also the oldest rivalry trophy in the country, the Territorial Cup.
The Sun Devils end their season hoping for a bowl berth with a 6-6 record, but could argue that they are the best of that group.
ASU went down to the wire with regularity this season, but the performances against Wisconsin, Oregon, and Stanford showed how close this squad is to the elite in the country.
With the new Pac-12 beginning next Fall, and only three starters being lost to graduation, now, the phrase, “wait ‘til next year” has a ring to it in Tempe.