Rich Rodriguez made a pretty solid case Friday night for keeping his job. At least for another year.
The frustrated head coach of the University of Arizona football team had his players well-prepared for this year’s Territorial Cup rivalry game with Arizona State, so much so that his Wildcats broke a school record on the way to a decisive 56-35 victory in Tucson.
After a disappointing 6-5 finish last season and an utterly dismal follow-up performance this season when the Cats were 2-9 going into Friday’s season finale and dragging behind them an eight-game losing streak, Rodriguez needed to bring the Cup back to the Old Pueblo and finish the season on a high note.
Arizona State had won three of the four games during RichRod’s time as Arizona’s head coach, including last year’s 52-37 victory in Tempe.
But there was little question early in the game that the Wildcats were determined to win this one for their seniors, and a struggling head coach whose seat was beginning to get uncomfortably warm, if not downright hot. The Wildcats looked in control for the entire first half of play, holding the Devils to just one touchdown until just 34 seconds left in the half, when ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins connected with senior wide receiver Tim White on a 21-yard TD pass that cut the Wildcat lead to 28-14 going into the locker room.
Wilkins threw 57 passes in this game to contribute three TDs; his 43 completions set a new school record
ASU scored again just four minutes into the second half on a Kalen Ballage two-yard run that capped off a nine-play drive and pulled the Sun Devils within a score at 28-21. But that was as close as the visitors from up north would get the rest of the way as Arizona rolled to its first win since Sept. 17 when it beat Hawaii.
Ballage, one of ASU’s top running backs, finished with 14 yards rushing, while his backfield partner, Demario Richard ran for an anemic 34 yards.
While Wilkins led an ASU air attack that accounted for 372 yards, Arizona owned the real estate. Three Wildcat runners broke the 100-yard mark, and the 511 total yards on the ground set a new school record. ASU finished with 120 rushing yards.
UofA quarterback Brandon Dawkins led all runners with 187 yards rushing to go along with 77 yards passing. Senior receiver Samajie Grant was close behind with 184 rushing yards and redshirt junior running back Zach Green added 126.
Dawkins’ 71-yard touchdown run on the third play of the game set the tone for what would turn into an offensive display that put a combined 91 points on the Arizona Stadium scoreboard, to the delight of the 50,197 fans who showed up for Senior Night.
Actually, fans have come to expect this sort of thing when the Territorial Cup is on the line. Over the last five years, no combined score was less than 72 points.
In the third quarter, the teams began exchanging scores, with each adding two more to their totals. Grant scored on a 9-yard run for Arizona and Green poked another TD into the end zoned on a one-yard run. ASU countered with another Ballage TD from two yards out and a 16-yard TD pass from Wilkins to N’Keal Harry, the freshman wide receiver from nearby Chandler High School.
Grant got the call again in the fourth quarter, adding two more scores for the Wildcats, while ASU was able to collect one more when Wilkins hit wide receiver Fred Gammage with a 7-yard pass with 3:09 left to play in the game.
ASU head coach Todd Graham gave his rivals due credit for a well-played game, but used the post-game press conference to offer a disparaging postmortem on the loss, calling his team’s play “the worse performance we’ve had since we’ve been here…and that was embarrassing. No excuses, but that was very difficult to watch.
“You can’t play that bad and make up any excuses. We just absolutely played atrocious.”
The loss to Arizona meant the Sun Devils, with a 5-7 overall record, won’t be eligible for a bowl invitation – unless there aren’t enough teams to fill all the bowl berths. In that case, there might be a bowl committee out there interested in a five-win program. But, for all intents and purposes, the season is over for both teams. It will be the first time a Graham-coached ASU team has failed to reach bowl eligibility.
Graham had a tough time last year, too, finishing with his first losing record (6-7) in Tempe.
Both coaches just wrapped up their fifth season at the two Pac-12 schools. Each is expected to be back on the sidelines next season, but this year has put a strain on their fans’ patience.
After a couple of down seasons, next year will be pivotal for both coaches.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)