Pac-12 football season opens with ASU win, UA loss

It’s not always about how you play the game.  But it is always about which team comes out with the win.

The weekend’s Pac-12 football  openers for University of Arizona and Arizona State illustrate that truism perfectly.  ASU played a sloppy, error-filled game but still came away with a win, while UofA exceeded expectations but nonetheless starts the season with a loss.

Arizona’s loss to BYU makes it 13 in a row, with a string that began back in 2019.  And Jedd Fisch begins his tenure as the new head coach unable to break the streak.  He became the third straight UofA coach to lose an opening game to the Cougars.

The Wildcats were underdogs by better than a touchdown and taking the field to play their first non-conference game in almost two years to the week.  But they were able to give the heavily-favored Cougars all they could handle.

Arizona rallied from an 18-point deficit in the third quarter to battle for the win in the final minutes before finally succumbing, 24-16, in the Good Sam Vegas Kickoff Classic in Sin City.

The Cats moved the ball well throughout the contest and actually outgained BYU in total yardage, 426-368, while also picking up more first downs, 27-18.

Gunner Cruz, a redshirt freshman transfer from Washington State, had a banner day in his quarterback debut in a Wildcats’ uniform, completing 34 of 45 pass attempts for 336 yards and a touchdown.  And redshirt junior wide receiver Stanley Berryhill III had a career game, catching 12 passes for 102 yards.

But it wasn’t enough against a BYU defense that stiffened in the fourth quarter, allowing nothing more than a 37-yard Lucas Havrisik field goal.  The senior from California missed a couple of other FG opportunities during the game, but that wouldn’t have made enough difference to change the outcome.

Meanwhile, in Tempe…the Sun Devils were fortunate they weren’t faced with a team like BYU, which went 11-1 last season.  They had enough trouble in a Thursday opener getting their act together enough to post a 41-14 win over Southern Utah, a team from the Big Sky Conference that went 1-5 over last season’s pandemic-interrupted schedule.

The Sun Devils had real trouble getting a new season off the ground, committing seven of a total 13 penalties in just the first quarter, which head coach Herm Edwards attributed, in large part, to normal first-game jitters.  ASU managed a meager 13-7 lead after that mistake-prone first quarter, but stretched the lead to 28-7 by halftime, and then shifted into high gear by scoring on the first possession of the third quarter.

Junior quarterback Jayden Daniels didn’t get much of a chance to show he’s ready for the new season since he had to leave the game in the third quarter with leg cramps.  However, his abbreviated appearance was impressive as he completed 10 of 12 pass attempts for 132 yards.

However, the running game was supposed to be the focal point this season.  Edwards used seven different ball carriers throughout the game, but center stage went to running backs Rachaad White and DeaMonte Trayanum.  White, a redshirt senior, rushed for 58 yards, and sophomore Trayanum gained 52, with both seeing limited time due to the lopsided score.

But it was the Sun Devil defense setting the tone early, forcing four Thunderbird turnovers in the first half, two of those on interceptions by senior linebacker Darien Butler.  ASU takes pride in this area; it led the nation in takeaway margin last season.

However, make no mistake: this was not a pretty win.  It showed there is much room for improvement.

This is supposed to be a promising season for ASU, which is expected by many analysts to contend for the Pac-12 title.  But if the Devils don’t clean up the mistakes and get focused on that goal, this will just be another season of missed opportunity.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)