UA wins Territorial Cup…and the Pac-12 South crown

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                </div>  Arizona State has been one of the best fourth-quarter football teams in the country this year, averaging 10 points a game in the final frame to put them at […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Arizona State has been one of the best fourth-quarter football teams in the country this year, averaging 10 points a game in the final frame to put them at seventh among Division-I FBS programs.

But yesterday afternoon, they finally ran short down the stretch in the biggest game of the year.

Back-up quarterback Mike Bercovici connected with De’Marieya Nelson with 5:02 left to play to begin an ASU rally, but that would turn out to be the Devils’ final score as Arizona notched the 35-42 win to boost their season record to 10-2 and earn them a spot in the Pac-12 Tournament as the South Division champions.

The Cats will play Oregon next week for the Pac-12 Tournament title.  They beat the Ducks earlier in the season, and once last year as well.

Stanford’s win over UCLA in a game being played at the same time gave the Cup contest real meaning because it meant the winner in Tucson would also win the South.  Arizona players were able to keep track of the progress of that game during their own and, by the time they beat ASU, they knew the Bruins had fallen and their win took on an even bigger significance.

Bercovici, the junior who filled in three games earlier in the season for injured starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, entered the game in the waning minutes of the third quarter – not because Kelly went down again, but because head coach Todd Graham was looking for a way to juice up a stalled offense.

When Kelly left the game he had passed for 144 yards on 13-for-22 passing, but as the second half got underway the Arizona defense had him bottled up, boxed in, and scrambling to avoid sacks as the Cats began pouring through the Sun Devil line and disrupted the rhythm of the fast-paced offense ASU has used all season to average 6.1 yards per play and 37 points a game.  By the time he left the game, he had been sacked five times.

Bercovici had almost identical stats in the short time he was in the game, completing 14 of his 22 pass attempts and finishing with 123 yards.  But it was a devastating interception that the Cats turned into an immediate score with nine minutes left to play that will, unfortunately, stand out in the minds of the ASU fans who were counting on him to pull yet another win out of his bag of tricks.  It was his 46-yard ‘Hail Mary’ pass that beat USC as time ran out in that game.

“We beat ourselves tonight and it killed us – which is hard to say,” Graham admitted after the game.  “We were seven points shy today, but that’s one you just scratch your head and think, ‘How in the world did we lose that game’?’

The self-destruction began early when Arizona’s sophomore linebacker Scooby Wright III forced a Taylor Kelly fumble at the ASU 23-yard line and junior safety Anthony Lopez picked it up and carried it 25 yards into the end zone to put the Cats up 7-0 in the first 44 seconds of the game, without even having to run its first offensive play.

In a game that was full of miscues, a second fumble recovery later in the quarter by the defense tied the game at 7-7 after Arizona’s Solomon lost the ball at his own 15-yard line and ASU’s Demetriius Cherry recovered it at the two and stepped into the end zone for the score.

And so it went for the rest of the first half, with Arizona going up seven and ASU answering with a score of its own, until the teams went into the locker room tied at 21-21.

The packed house at Arizona Stadium and a national TV audience were getting the kind of game they had hoped to see in an event of this importance, with No. 12 Arizona and No. 13 Arizona State standing toe-to-toe, like a couple of heavyweights exchanging body blows.

In the first half, ASU had picked up 99 yards rushing and held the Cats to just 13.  Their 192 total yards of offense also dwarfed Arizona’s 61.

But the second half was a different story as Arizona scored on its first possession on a one-yard plunge by freshman running back Nick Wilson to cap a 75-yard drive,  and then pushed the lead to 35-21 when Wilson scored again, this time on a 72-yard run down the middle of the field that whipped the Wildcat Nation into a frenzy.

Wilson, who rushed the previous week for 218 yards against Utah, finished the night with 185 yards on 24 carries, accounting for all of Arizona’s positive yardage on the ground. (Solomon gained three yards, but lost 50 in sacks for a -47 total.)

Just before the third quarter ended, Graham pulled Kelly and sent Bercovici in to try and turn the tide.  The back-up responded in the opening minutes of the fourth by driving the Devils to the two-yard line and then connecting with Kody Kohl in the corner of the end zone to bring the visitors within a touchdown once again.  But Arizona pulled away again with nine minutes yet to play as the defense went to work once more, with Jourdon Grandon intercepting Bercovici and returning the ball to the ASU 16; two plays later an Anu-to-Samanjie Grant hook-up made it 42-28.

Bercovici’s pass to Nelson at the 5:02 mark looked like the start of a late rally, but Arizona held for the win.

“Here we are, we’re where we want to be, playing for a Pac-12 Championship,” said Rodriguez in his post-game comments.  “Our goal every year is to win the Pac-12 South and then win the Pac-12 Championship.

“I didn’t know if this would happen in year three (his third year as head coach), but I knew it could happen, otherwise I wouldn’t have come here.  This is the perfect environment to build one of the best programs in the country.

“We aren’t there yet, but we’re on our way.”

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)