TUCSON, Ariz. — Late in the third quarter Friday night, Arizona State seemed much further behind than 10 points, the actual deficit against Arizona. The Wildcats had taken the biggest lead of the game after a Sun Devils fumble and had all the momentum on their side.
But this was the Territorial Cup, where momentum can swing in the blink of an eye, where unknown players become heroes — if only for one night.
In classic Territorial Cup fashion, ASU pieced together an astonishing finish highlighted by a blocked punt and a flurry of turnovers to beat UA 41-34 and guarantee a winning record for the first time since 2007.
“Big-time plays from big-time players,” ASU linebacker Brandon Magee said. “Tonight, it had to go home with us. I don’t care what the score was. We had to battle, and we won.”
The Sun Devils (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12) had managed to pull within a touchdown when the Wildcats (7-5, 4-5) embarked on another lengthy drive after three straight second-half possessions had resulted in points. The game turned for good, though, when ASU senior safety Keelan Johnson forced UA quarterback Matt Scott to fumble, setting up the Sun Devils’ game-tying touchdown drive.
“I just stripped him, kind of caught him in the air,” Johnson said. “I knew he wasn’t ready for it.”
It was on the next drive that the typical rivalry heroes began to emerge. ASU’s defense forced UA to punt, but as Kyle Dugandzic tried to get the kick off, senior safety Kevin Ayers charged in to block it; the Sun Devils recovered inside the Wildcats’ 10-yard line.
“Coach said ‘We need a block,’ and everybody was like ‘Come on, we need you,’ because I blocked a punt in the Oregon State game,” Ayers said. “Once I got through and I didn’t feel nobody touch me, I just knew I had to make the play and I knew it was there.”
Said ASU coach Todd Graham: “We went after every single punt. … The blocked punt was huge.”
It could not have come at a better time for the Sun Devils. The play set up an 8-yard touchdown run by Cameron Marshall, and ASU had suddenly scored 14 points in less than two minutes.
Now desperate to reclaim the momentum, the Wildcats went for it on a fourth down near midfield on the ensuing possession, and Scott threw a pass targeted at a well-covered receiver underneath. The ball was deflected, and junior safety Robert Nelson seized the moment and his 15 minutes of Territorial Cup glory, intercepting the pass and returning it to 66 yards to put the Sun Devils at the 2-yard line, just two yards shy of a two-touchdown lead and almost certain victory.
“I was proud of Robert,” Graham said. “He has got unbelievable ability. He’s just raw, he hasn’t played. As he plays, he’s going to get better and better and better. He had a phenomenal game tonight.”
Prior to Friday night’s game, Ayers and Nelson had a combined 21 tackles on the season. Now, Ayers will graduate with a unique place in ASU lore and Nelson will be remembered before future Territorial Cups no matter how the rest of his career turns out.
Moreover, the plays gave ASU the strong finish it needed after a four-game skid had derailed what appeared early to be such a promising season. With the win, the Sun Devils improved their bowl stock and gave themselves a chance to play for eight wins — a total that would no doubt resonate with fans and recruits as they evaluate where ASU is headed under Graham.
“It’s huge for our seniors and definitely our program and coach Graham,” ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly said. “It’s huge for us to get that momentum going into the bowl game. We’ll move on from there, and we’ve got to keep practicing hard.”
The rally — ASU scored 24 straight points in the fourth quarter to take a 41-27 lead with under three minutes to play — also underscored what has been perhaps the program’s greatest change in Graham’s first year: attitude.
“We kept fighting,” ASU defensive tackle Will Sutton said. “Last year, I felt like we gave up a little. This year, the coaches wouldn’t let us give up. They were coaching us even harder.”
That effort and demeanor have been there most of this season. It’s just been lost amid an all-too-familiar dive into mediocrity. On Friday, it finally showed up on the field, giving ASU an immediate boost and one that will reach beyond this season.
“This is the game,” Graham said. “It is the most important game for us. It was big not only winning, but how we won.
“These guys wanted to come here and they wanted to win tonight. This gives us great momentum going to the bowl. And I’ll tell you, we’re not (just) going to a bowl, we’re going to win. That’s the next big step — but I want to enjoy this one right now.”