The Arizona State Sun Devils (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) have infamously not handled success well in this young Herm Edwards era, dating back to the start of the 2018 season.
However, it’s something the group has gotten better at slowly but surely, which was on full display tonight. Following last week’s upset of then No. 6 Oregon, the Sun Devils dispatched the Arizona Wildcats (4-8, 2-7) by a score of 24-14, ASU’s third consecutive victory in the Territorial Cup.
“Winning this game was important in the fact that we beat an Oregon team, but if you lose this game it takes a lot away from you,” coach Herm Edwards stated, “it takes a lot away from your momentum…I challenged our football team this week, this game was about our seniors, and to send them off with a win. This is the last time those guys will ever play in this stadium.”
ASU last defeated Arizona in three straight matchups between 2005-2007, something that may serve as a promising sign for the Sun Devil faithful going forward.
Also, it’s not a bad legacy for the senior class to leave behind, just ask cornerback Kobe Williams, who transferred to ASU before the 2017 season and therefore doesn’t know the feeling of losing to UA.
“Never lost to them, 3-0,” Williams said with a grin on his face, about as enthusiastically as he could given his quiet, introverted nature (and also how tired he probably was postgame). “This game means so much to the fans, man, I just wanted to come in and be 3-0 for my career (in the Territorial Cup).”
Williams and the Sun Devil defense had every reason to be smiling after this game, as they led the way to victory in what was the lowest-scoring ASU-Arizona game since 2009. The unit stifled an Arizona offense that was 5th in the Pac-12 in yards per game coming into the contest, third in rushing yards per game, and averaged 28 points per game before tonight.
Most impressively, ASU intercepted three passes—half of their season total of six coming into the game—and as a result won the turnover battle 3-0, getting a crucial 11 points off of those turnovers.
“Our defense kept us in the game for the most part, with takeaways,” Edwards commented. “It was not the game we anticipated—that took place last year—high scoring affair, that was not the case.”
This was especially true in the game’s early going, when points seemed to be at a premium and the Wildcats found a way to lead at halftime 7-6. With both offenses sputtering, senior quarterback Khalil Tate found redshirt freshman receiver Jamarye Joiner streaking open down the right seam for a 48-yard touchdown strike, thanks to a coverage error by Williams, one of his only blunders of the night.
ASU responded with a punt, on a drive that was as close as the Sun Devils got to turning the ball over when Daniels recovered his own fumble after getting sacked. Upon getting the ball back, the Wildcats seemed poised to capitalize on the momentum after converting a 3rd & 12, due to a valid pass interference on sophomore safety Aashari Crosswell, and then a 3rd & 10 later in the drive with a 14-yard pass to Joiner.
Enter junior cornerback Jack Jones, who picked off a pass by being in the right spot on a terrible throw by Tate that was a clear miscommunication with his receiver.
The interception killed a nine-play, 40-yard drive that was in progress for the Wildcats, which the Sun Devil offense turned into a seven-play, 69-yard drive to finish the half with a field goal. Freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels ran for 30 yards on this series, and also drew 25 penalty yards on UA thanks to some bold throws that exposed UA’s defensive backs.
“We needed to convert some third downs, we were really poor in the first half,” Edwards said. “We were 1-for-7. We kicked the field goal and then from there I said we get another possession and we can put some points on the board and get our running game going. That came to fruition for us.”
Rarely does a receive/defer decision during the game’s opening coin toss prove to be as interesting as it did in tonight’s game. Despite winning the toss, ASU elected to defer.
The decision was intriguing at the time but eventually proved to be key in the Sun Devils building their momentum from half to half. This is because ASU came out for its opening drive in the second half and imposed its will with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate 5:30 off the clock.
Junior running back Eno Benjamin, who was averaging 2.6 yards per carry through the game’s first 20 minutes, averaged over eight yards per carry on his six rushes during this march down the field, which concluded with his six-yard touchdown carry.
“It was important that we got a drive going, and we leaned on Eno a little bit,” Edwards admitted. “We said ‘we’re going to run the ball,’ that was the intentions, and we stuck with it.”
At this point, there was no looking back for the Sun Devils, leading 13-7 at that point and ready to continue making the third quarter their you-know-what as it progressed. In fact, only three scrimmage plays after Benjamin’s touchdown, Jones had another pick to get—on an even worse throw by Tate, I might add.
While ASU went three-and-out on the drive following that second Jones pick, the defense wasn’t done getting Daniels and the offense the ball. For a third consecutive drive, Tate would get picked off.
In this instance, Tate didn’t necessarily make a wildly inaccurate throw, but rather zipped the ball at redshirt freshman running back Darrius Smith, who let it bounce off his hands and into the air. Sophomore linebacker Merlin Robertson was lurking behind Smith, and found himself in a perfect position to snag the ball once he corralled it after some bobbling.
Starting the drive 49 yards from the end zone, Benjamin and Daniels took seven plays to turn that Robertson pick into eight more points. Benjamin ran for 21 yards on the drive, bringing it home with the one-yard touchdown run, and then Daniels capped it off by running home the two-point conversion on a QB keeper, fooling several Wildcats on the play to give ASU the 21-7 lead.
“We were very lethargic offensively early but got things going in the second half,” Edwards said. “Eno found some creases in their defense. They were nervous about our receivers, no doubt about that. We dropped a couple of balls too, and that didn’t help us either.”
What did clearly keep helping the Sun Devil offense was the play of their defense, who silenced UA in the third quarter and didn’t allow any second half points until less than five minutes were left in regulation, at which point the Wildcats could only cut ASU’s lead to 24-14.
One key factor to this was their shutdown of Arizona’s normally potent running game, which ASU held to 60 yards in the entire second half and 155 total yards. Tate led the way with 78 yards on the ground, but their standout tailback in junior J.J. Taylor was held to 48 yards on 3.4 yards per carry.
“We focused on that all week in practice, just stopping the run,” junior Tillman safety Evan Fields said. “As a defense, we just played fast, we just read and react, and when you do that, it’s just hard to run the ball…it was like we were racing for the tackles.”
Compare this to ASU’s 182 in the final 30 minutes, of course, led by Benjamin’s 168 yards rushing (4.9 yards per carry, two touchdowns) on the night plus 62 rushing from Daniels.
“I think we did a good job,” Benjamin said. “The offensive line did a really good job as far as imposing its will on people.
“That offensive line group, I got real close to them. Just building chemistry, staying after hours and working, just on little stuff to perform better. So, I felt like I got really close to those guys, and the fact that they’re (going to be) gone, and playing for them in their last game was an amazing feeling.”
Benjamin added 14 yards of receiving on three catches, which due to the game plan was actually second on the team only to senior Brandon Aiyuk’s five catches for 67 yards.
On defense, Fields led the way with 10 tackles, which doesn’t include a thunderous QB hit on Tate that caused him to force an incompletion on a 4th & 2 in the first half.
Also standing out in addition to Jones (now three interceptions in last two games, six tackles tonight) and Robertson (six tackles in addition to the pick) was sophomore defensive lineman Jermayne Lole (seven tackles, one sack), redshirt freshman safety Cam Phillips (six tackles, one for loss), and sophomore safety Aashari Crosswell (five tackles, one for loss, pass defended).
Phillips was particularly impressive throughout the game, looking like the version of himself that we saw prior to dislocating his elbow against Colorado, after which defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales called him the defense’s most productive player play-for-play to that point in the season.
The Sun Devils will now wait to see which bowl game they are selected to play in, which will not be known until after the conference championships are played next weekend.
This marks the third straight season in which ASU is bowl eligible, doing so now in both seasons—both times with a 7-5 regular-season record—under coach Edwards.
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