By Zach Alvira
A loss to Arizona in the Territorial Cup would have been detrimental to the Arizona State football program.
It would have put an exclamation point on a season filled with disappointment for fans, especially after the preseason hype and Rose Bowl aspirations for a team that returned most of its key starters on both sides of the ball. But the Sun Devils took care of business Saturday afternoon in Tempe, winning their fifth consecutive Territorial Cup over an Arizona team on a downward spiral, 38-15.
The win made the coaching staff happy. It made the players happy. And it served as temporary relief for fans who have grown increasingly frustrated with the program through the course of the 2021 regular season.
“It’s like a dream come true,” defensive back Chase Lucas said of the win. “This is a great feeling, but I think we’ve got another game to worry about now. We are going to celebrate this win as a family, as a team and go on to the next.”
It wasn’t a standout performance for the Arizona State offense, but the Sun Devils did just enough to with the help of their defense to pull away from the Wildcats. Especially in the second half.
Junior quarterback Jayden Daniels connected with wideout Ricky Pearsall for the first touchdown of the game from 14 yards out. The drive, a 75-yarder that was done in nine plays, was the second-longest of the game for the Sun Devils. Their only other first-half score came from a 1-yard plunge by running back Rachaad White after defensive end Tyler Johnson picked up a fumble and fell just short of the goal line in the second quarter.
Arizona, meanwhile, managed to sustain long drives on the Arizona State defense most of the day. The Wildcats’ first two drives went for a combined 144 yards. However, they only came away with two field goals.
Arizona’s inability to finish drives was apparent throughout the game. On six separate occasions the Wildcats entered the red zone. They kicked three field goals, had an interception and turnover on downs on five of those. The lone touchdown came in the third quarter, a 5-yard pass from Will Plummer to Michael Wiley.
Plummer finished 38 of 38 for 346 yards and the lone touchdown. Arizona as a team had 396 yards of offense. Arizona State had 314.
“The first half was a half of, you know, methodically just trying to move the ball,” Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards said. “I’m glad we scored some points early, that always helps. I thought the second half we got things going offensively and the defense forced some big turnovers.”
As has been the case most of the season, Arizona State used the second half to pull away from Arizona.
Daniels scrambled out of the pocket in his team’s first offensive possession of the third quarter and found room down the near sideline. A block by Pearsall down field allowed him to find the end zone from 48 yards out. On the Sun Devils’ next drive, Daniels found Pearsall for the second time in the end zone, this time from 14 yards. He finished 10 of 14 for 86 yards. He added 86 more yards on the ground.
A 17-point third quarter quickly made it a two-score game heading to the fourth quarter. But defensive back Jack Jones put it out of reach near the midway point of the fourth quarter with an 87-yard pick-six off Plummer.
“I played my leverage, quarterback overthrew it, and I took it to the house,” Jones said. “I honestly just give all the credit to coach Herm, Ray Anderson, Mr. (Michael) Crow, (Marvin Lewis) and (Antonio Pierce). Without those group of guys, I wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to get interceptions or make tackles for ASU football.
“I’m blessed to be here.”
The win capped off a regular season filled with adversity for the Sun Devils, most of which was brought upon themselves in the form of penalties, second-half collapses, turnovers and an investigation into the program’s recruitment of players during the COVID dead period last year.
Many questioned whether the investigation or the underwhelming performance at times would lead to a separation between Edwards and the program. But it didn’t take long for senior Lucas to squash those rumors following his team’s victory, especially when considering Edwards became the first coach to start the Territorial Cup series with four straight wins.
“I know Ray Anderson just told us Herm Edwards was going to be our coach in the future,” Lucas said. “Despite all that BS you all are hearing, man, Herm Edwards is the coach.”
With Edwards still in charge moving forward, fans and team personnel can now look to the future of the program.
The results of the investigation will still come out in due time. The Sun Devils will find out in the next week or two, according to Edwards, which bowl game they will play in. Representatives from the Holiday Bowl in San Diego were in attendance Saturday.
Then there’s the player personnel. Edwards hugged every senior – and players expected to depart early from the program – as they ran out of the tunnel pregame. Among those were hometown favorites Lucas, Kyle Soelle and Johnson – three key pieces to Arizona State’s success in recent years.
With only five high school players from the 2022 class currently committed to Arizona State, Edwards said he will start looking at transfer portal film on Monday. He said there are about 30 names he is interested in that could make a difference in the program and finally bring along the chance to compete for a PAC-12 title.
“We want to get in that championship game. We want to win the PAC-South. We want to do that,” Edwards said. “We beat everybody in our conference except the team that won it. We are going to get some players out of the portal. That’s my objective. Monday morning I’m locked in.”