It had been a season of highs and lows for the Sun Devils and Friday night's 85th annual Duel in the Desert with 24th ranked Arizona proved to be no different. Despite falling behind early and facing a ten point deficit entering the fourth quarter, the Sun Devils (7-5, 5-4) pulled off the improbable, finishing the game with 24 unanswered points, shocking their rival on the road.
Having lost any momentum and the lead that they had taken into halftime with them, the Sun Devils found themselves railing 27-17 entering the fourth quarter and dangerously close to succumbing to the Wildcats. Arizona State was facing arguably their biggest challenge of the season with their backs against the wall. A defeat at the hands of the Wildcats and another non-winning season in Tempe would have taken the shine off any early season success Head Coach Todd Graham and his team had accumulated. But that's just when ASU dug their deepest, providing another unpredictable finish to a rivalry never short on dramatics.
A 39 yard Jon Mora field goal inched the Sun Devils closer, providing a sliver of hope as an exhausted ASU defense - one that gave up 522 yards of offense to Wildcats in a game Graham "four quarters of anxiety" - looked to regroup on the sidelines, desperately in need of a stop in order to give their team a chance to score again.
With less than ten minutes remaining and the Wildcats on the move again, senior quarterback Matt Scott gambled on a designed run to the outside and was greeted by senior safety and Phoenix native Keelan Johnson, who delivered a crushing hit on a leaping Scott, jarring the ball loose as ASU junior safety recovered the fumble inside of Arizona territory.
It was just one of four forced Sun Devil turnovers on the evening, and the second caused by Johnson as he snared one of three interceptions by Scott earlier in the game setting up the Sun Devils' first score of the night, giving ASU one more chance at springing the upset.
"Turnovers are huge," said senior linebacker Brandon Magee. "When we get a turnover, the offense has to capitalize and that is exactly what we did. All I cans say is that I am so proud of all the interceptions and fumbles that we caused."
"We come together when stuff hits the fan and when adversity hIts," said Taylor Kelly, who completed 16-29 passes for 191 yards, after the game. "I kept coming to the offensive line and bringing my guys up and telling them stay focused and good things are going to happen and we got the energy going and things just started clicking."
The Sun Devils wasted very little time making the Wildcats pay for the careless ways as Marion punched in the game-tying touchdown on a four yard run with just over seven minutes remaining in the contest. Playing in his first Territorial Cup showdown, the junior Grice led the way for Arizona State in the second half, finishing with 156 rushing yards on 18 carries with three touchdowns, winning the Bob Moran MVP Trophy of the game.
A suddenly rejuvenated and hungry Sun Devil defense quickly forced the Wildcats into a punting situation on the ensuing possession, setting up one of the more unlikely scenarios in this rivalry series full of surprises as reeve safety Kevin Ayers darted into the Arizona backfield, blocking his second punt of the season, setting the Sun Devils up with favorable field position with under six minutes remaining in the game.
"Our special teams effort had been huge for us all season, and they came through for us again tonight," said Magee. "I am just so proud of everyone on our team tonight."
Senior Cameron Marshall, who finished with just 24 yards on nine carries, pounded in the go-ahead score on an eight yard up middle, silencing the UofA faithful as Arizona State appeared on the verge of snatching victory from the home team.
A Robert Nelson interception and coupled with a one yard Michael Eubank touchdown run sealed the victory for the Sun Devils, as ASU fans and players erupted with joy. The victory marks the first winning season for the Sun Devils since 2007 while also improving the team's chances of securing a more prestigious bowl bid for the postseason.
"The thing is that I wasn't even here in 2007, so this is the first winning season for me and all these seniors," said Magee. It just feels nice to start changing things for this program. It feels great to leave on a positive note."
"I didn't play last year and felt that they disrespected us by coming onto our field and stomping on our stuff like that," he added, referencing the Arizona players celebrating on the ASU logo last season after their win in Tempe. "That's why when we won, you saw what we did, we shook their hands and walked off the field like we've been there before. I'm really proud of the team. I'm proud of the coaching staff. I'm proud to be a Sun Devil."
In a back and forth game, it was the Sun Devils who outlasted the Wildcats despite not playing their best game. Three personal foul penalties set Arizona up for scoring drives early in the game as ASU was flagged five times in the first half, the most of any half all year for the team. taylor Kelly struggled to find his rhythm, attempting only three passes in the first quarter as Arizona staked to an early lead.
Despite that though, the Sun Devils played with the resiliency and personality of their coach, refusing to accept defeat, instead leaving the crowded Arizona stadium - boasting a season-high in attendance with 51,901 on hand to enjoy the rivalry classic. Behind a powerful rushing attack (269 yards on the ground) and an opportunistic defense (four total turnovers), along with a blocked punt, the Sun Devils came away victorious.
"I just handed the Territorial Cup to Frank Kush in the locker room," said Graham as he greeted the media afterwards. "He kissed it. He was pretty excited. We met a couple of times this week and he reminded me the importance of this game."
"There was a lot of excitement," added Keelan Johnson. "I was proud of these guys. We came back and fought back from a ten point, two score deficit or whatever. But running out there for our last time, playing UofA and going out with these seniors, my last time playing with my teammates here, it was just a great feeling."
As Arizona fans quickly exited the stadium, Graham took a victory lap showing off the Cup to ASU fans that stayed around to cheer on the team, savoring the moment while fully aware of its importance.
"I'm an emotional guy," said Graham of his celebratory march. "Our guys were first class. These fans pay to see this they deserve to touch the Territorial Cup. I'm proud to be their coach."
Now, the Sun Devils will wait to see where they'll play in this year's bowl game, the second straight season for the team. One thing is for sure though, they won;t be going just to compete.
"These guys came in here wanting to win," said Graham. "This gives us momentum going into the bowl game. But we're not going to bowl, we're going to win."