TUCSON, Ariz. — Friday’s postgame, no-look handshake between Arizona State coach Todd Graham and Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez would best be described as a drive-by.
“He didn’t have much to say,” Graham quipped.
That moment – captured on the stadium’s massive video board – was the perfect metaphor for ASU’s 41-34 win at Arizona Stadium.
Arizona had all the momentum in this game and in this season. The Wildcats had already posted signature wins against Oklahoma State and USC. They had finally proven they could win on the road with a victory in Salt Lake City last weekend. And they were less than a quarter away from beating their in-state rivals with a 27-17 fourth-quarter lead.
Wildcats fans were imagining the possibilities. An 8-4 season, a better bowl game following Washington’s shocking loss in the Apple Cup and a possible second-place finish in the Pac-12 South Division.
In the span of nine minutes, ASU obliterated those dreams as it sped past Arizona with 24 consecutive points to alter the course of two programs’ seasons.
“We kept fighting,” said defensive tackle Will Sutton, who was a disruptive force at the line of scrimmage all night, despite battling a foot injury. “Last year, I felt like we gave up a little. This year, the coaches wouldn’t let us.”
When ASU dropped its third of four straight games at Oregon State on Nov. 3, Graham took offense to a line of questioning that suggested this season was going to play out just like the previous one under coach Dennis Erickson — with a fast start and a pathetic finish.
“Our guys never flinched,” Graham said. “I never thought that I’d lost any momentum with them at all.”
And yet, ASU was in danger of posting its third consecutive 6-6 regular season Friday in Tucson. If it had, all that talk about fundamental changes, character and discipline would have sounded like idle chatter to the revenue-producing fan base, because the changes hadn’t shown up on the field.
That’s why this win was so important for ASU. Not only did it win the in-state battle and maybe earn a leg up in the in-state recruiting wars, this win validated everything that Graham has been preaching since he arrived in December. To the fans, to the media and, most important, to his players.
“It can’t be any bigger, just like on the other end of it, if we wouldn’t have won, it would have been the worst thing that could have happened,” Graham said. “I’m elated. I’m just thrilled to death.”
And it happened in the blink of an eye. Following a 39-yard Jon Mora field goal, Sun Devils safety Keelan Johnson stripped Wildcats quarterback Matt Scott of the ball at the ASU 18-yard line, with the Wildcats in position to go up by two scores, and Deveron Carr recovered for the Devils all the way out at the 44.
Six plays later, Territorial Cup MVP Marion Grice — who finished with 156 yards and three TDs — bowled in from six yards out and the Devils had momentum as they tied the game at 27-27.
Following a three-and-out for Arizona, Kevin Ayers blocked a punt, and Cameron Marshall scored from eight yards out for a 34-27 lead. Cornerback Robert Nelson then snared the third of ASU’s interceptions and Michael Eubank capped the scoring with a 1-yard TD run to silence the red-clad, east side of the stadium.
“I didn’t play last year, and I felt like they disrespected us by coming on our field and stomping on our stuff,” said linebacker Brandon Magee, who had a game-high 17 tackles. “That’s why when we won, you saw what we did. We shook their hands and walked off the field like we’ve been there before.”
In the euphoria that was the south end zone, the Sun Devils lingered on the field, mingling with friends and family longer than any ASU club in recent memory. And Graham, who never misses a job to sell and promote his program, was doing what he does best.
The scores of ASU fans who stuck around were rewarded as Graham carried the Territorial Cup along the lower rim of the stands, allowing fan after fan to touch it and exchange words with the new leader of the program.
“I’m an emotional guy,” Graham said. “These fans pay to see this so they deserve to touch the Territorial Cup. I’m proud to be their coach.”