A good sign: fans flock to ASU, UA spring football games

Arizona’s Pac-12 football coaches were encouraged by what they saw at yesterday’s spring scrimmage games – and not just by what they saw on the field.

Fans were abundant at both Arizona State and University of Arizona, as continuing indicators of what winning records can mean in boosting next season’s game-day attendance.

Just a shade over 4,000 fans showed up in Tucson to watch the Wildcats perform in just the second Spring Game under second-year head coach, Rich Rodriguez.  And estimates over in Tempe put the attendance at well over 6,000 for the ASU Spring Game, also the second for head coach, Todd Graham.

Of course, the Sun Devils have a much larger area from which to draw their support.  And both schools created a festival-like atmosphere for the event, designed to ‘enhance the fans’ experience’ – and bring out more people.

The activities in the Old Pueblo included an inflatable football toss, drawings and giveaways, and a limited selection of concessions.  And, of course, the athletic department provided an opportunity for fans to stroll over to the McKale Center ticket office to purchase their season tickets.

But ASU got really carried away with their “Fun Fest,” rolling out a maroon-and-gold carnival that included inflatable football, baseball, soccer, and basketball games for the kids.  And a six-foot-tall inflatable ball let them roll around inside the toy.

For the adults, men’s basketball coach Herb Sendek was on hand to judge a tailgate competition, while the Sun Devil mascot roamed the landscape to offer encouragement and have his picture taken with the fans.  And photo opportunities were also provided with former Sun Devil players; fans could even get their picture taken with the 1987 Rose Bowl trophy or the Territorial Cup that normally makes its appearance at the end of the season for the rivalry game with the Wildcats.

And, of course, after the 11 o’clock scrimmage the fans got a chance to mingle with the players and get autographs and pictures with them.

Speaking of the scrimmage, there was some football included on the day’s agenda.

“We turned the ball over too much,” was one of the first assessments that came out of Coach Graham’s mouth after the scrimmage.  Ball security is something the second-year coach has stressed from Day 1 and considers it the difference between winning and losing a lot of games.

Taylor Kelly, the returning starter at quarterback, played for the Gold team and was 15-for-21 throwing for 126 yards and also rushed six times for another 33 yards.  His back-up next season will likely be either Mike Bercovici or Michael Eubank, who both played for the Maroon squad.  Bercovici completed 8-of-13 for 114 yards and Eubank picked up 88 yards on 8-for-12 passing.

Marion Grice, the senior from Texas and one of seven starters returning on offense, got the lion’s share of the carries.  He played a little for both teams, picking up a total of 63 yards on 14 attempts.  Marcus Washington led the Maroon Team in rushing with 40 yards on five carries.

“I think our guys competed well,” said Graham in summing up the scrimmage. “We’ve gotten better as a football team, and the key is depth.”  College analysts obviously agree that the Sun Devils are an improving team; some have even installed ASU, which also has eight starters coming back on defense, as a favorite to win the Pac-12 this year.

“Today’s goal was to come out healthy, which we did.”

Unfortunately, UofA hasn’t been so lucky.  While the Cats managed to get through the scrimmage without any serious mishaps – although they went into the game with a couple dozen on the injury list – they lost one of their key players even before the Saturday game rolled around.

Austin Hill, the talented wide receiver who tied the school record with 11 receiving touchdowns last season as a sophomore, tore an ACL in practice last Wednesday.  The 6’3″ acrobat from California caught 81 passes last season for 1,364 yards and was selected to the Pac-12 Second Team.

With Hill out, the focus will turn to sophomore David Richards, who saw limited time Saturday, making just one catch for 10 yards.  But last season, the 6’4″ recruit from California who was redshirted his freshman season saw considerable playing time, averaging 10 yards a reception.

But Hill might not have played even if he had been healthy since Rodriguez held out some of his better talent, like running back sensation Ka’Deem Carey, for fear of injuries.

Fortunately, Arizona is deep at the receiver position.  Fourteen different receivers played Saturday and half a dozen more are on their way, signed on with this year’s recruiting class.

The big question mark is at quarterback, since Rodriguez lost last year’s starter, Matt Scott, to graduation.

B.J. Denker saw the most playing time in the scrimmage game, connecting 13 times on 20 attempts for 246 yards and four touchdowns.  Walk-on Jack Nykaza was 8-of-12 for 89 yards and two scores, and transfer Jesse Scroggins picked up 44 yards and two TDs on 6-for-17 passing.  All three threw interceptions.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)