ASU, UA hit major bumps in road to football bowl invites

This year’s Duel in the Desert just turned very interesting.

Based on the results of this weekend’s Pac-10 football games, that annual meeting between Arizona State and the University of Arizona at season’s end might be a much closer game than originally anticipated earlier this season.

Arizona has put together a solid season, rising to No. 13 in the national rankings.  Arizona State has languished toward the bottom of the Pac-10, falling to 4-5 overall and 2-4 in conference.

But the Sun Devils played toe-to-toe with a good USC team last night and had a chance to win the game before Thomas Weber missed the winning field goal with 1:34 left to play.  The 34-33 result, however, still shows up in the record as just another loss.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats took on No. 10 Stanford and were embarrassed by a lack of offense and a disappearing defense that gave the Cardinal a devastating 42-17 victory – and put a nasty detour up on the road to the Rose Bowl.

The Wildcats entered the game with arguably the best defense in the conference, and one of the best in the country.  But against the Cardinal, they gave up 516 yards of offense and allowed Andrew Luck to throw for 293 yards and two touchdowns.

From Stanford’s opening drive when Luck completed a 45-yard pass for the score, it was apparent the Cats were going to have a long day on defense.  Stanford boasts one of the strongest offensive games in the conference, and Arizona just didn’t appear ready for the challenge.

Arizona’s QB, Nick Foles, was back from his knee injury and was productive from the pocket, racking up 248 yards in a 28-of-48 performance.  But the Cats couldn’t get the first downs when they needed them and seldom found the end zone.

And this isn’t the first time Arizona’s offense has sputtered.  The Cats put on an anemic display against California at mid-season, escaping with a 10-9 win that more appropriately resembled a baseball score.

The loss puts Arizona at 4-2 in conference and may have just derailed hopes for the school’s first Rose Bowl appearance.

Meanwhile, down the road in Los Angeles, Arizona State was putting on a show against the Trojans.  USC was expected to win in their house, just as they have against the Devils every time over the past 11 years.

But ASU made it exciting, rising up from a 15-point deficit late in the third quarter, thanks to a 100-yard kickoff return by LeQuan Lewis and an interception by Omar Bolden that he returned 66 yards for another score.  Lewis’ run makes him just the fourth player in the history of the Sun Devil program to accomplish the feat.

However, exciting games against good teams haven’t put the Devils in a position for a bowl invitation.  Remember the one-point loss earlier in the season to Wisconsin, now ranked No. 5 in the country?  And the 11-point loss to Oregon, now the No. 1 team, even though they ran up more offensive yardage?

Against USC, the Devils served notice early that they were up to the challenge, scoring on a Steven Threet-to-Gerell Robinson pass less than two minutes into the game.  Threet, despite being sacked four times, finished with 228 yards and three touchdown passes.

But in the end, the junior QB had no control over the outcome.  A blocked extra-point kept ASU from tying the game and the missed field goal by one of the best kickers in the nation sealed the Devils’ fate once again.

By the time that Dec. 2 season finale in Tucson rolls around, Arizona State may be playing for little else than pride.  Their bowl chances are slim at best.  They would have to beat two of the best teams in the conference, No. 7 Stanford (see game results against Arizona for verification) and No. 18 Arizona, and then get past a dangerous UCLA team.

Arizona has earned bowl eligibility, but they’re not going to make a very attractive opponent unless they pick up the pieces and begin playing again like the Wildcat team that climbed to No. 13.

Either way, the fight for the Territorial Cup should be one of the most interesting in years.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)