Lesser lights shine bright in Territorial Cup

James Brooks walked off the Arizona Stadium field and unleashed a primal scream into a reporter’s face. Then he smiled.

“That felt good, man!” he yelled. “Felt good to rise up.”

Rise up is literally what Brooks did on Dec. 2, 2010. First, the Arizona State defensive end jumped higher than he’d ever jumped before to block Alex Zendejas’ extra-point try and send the 84th playing of the Territorial Cup into overtime. Then, when Arizona scored to pull within one in the second overtime, Brooks produced an encore on a low PAT attempt, preserving ASU’s 30-29 victory.

Brooks’ twin blocks provided a perfect metaphor for Territorial Cups past. Many a star player has left his imprint on the ASU-UA rivalry, whether it was John Jefferson’s leaping catch to preserve ASU’s perfect 1975 season, or Chuck Cecil’s 106-yard interception return to secure victory for Arizona in 1986 over ASU’s unbeaten Rose Bowl-bound team.

But the Territorial Cup showdown is littered with lesser-known names who rose up for one game – one play, even — to leave an indelible imprint on the rivalry.

In 2009 at Sun Devil Stadium, Arizona walk-on defensive back Orlando Vargas blocked Trevor Hankins’ punt and returned it 23 yards for a score to put UA up 14-0 late in the second quarter. It was a crucial play in the Wildcats’ 20-17 victory.

In 2011, Arizona career backup quarterback Bryson Beirne entered the game as the clock was winding down after Nick Foles injured his back. Beirne found Juron Criner on a 23-yard screen pass for a TD to produce a stunning 31-27 win for Arizona at Sun Devil Stadium.

In 2006, Terry Richardson, who never blossomed into the receiver many ASU fans envisioned, fought off the sun to field a punt midway through the fourth quarter with the Sun Devils trailing, 20-13. One thing Richardson always did well was return punts, and this was his biggest moment. He took the kick 71 yards for a touchdown to tie the game, and Jesse Ainsworth’s 20-yard field goal with six second left won it for ASU to earn the Devils an Insight Bowl berth, where they beat Rutgers.  

In 1992, in the lowest scoring Territorial Cup game since 1974, ASU’s Kevin Galbreath took a handoff on a counter play, broke a couple tackles, used his hand to right himself when he almost went to the ground and raced 51 yards down the Arizona sideline for the lone TD of the game in a 7-6 ASU win.

“It seemed liked it was in slow motion because I was aware of everything,” Galbreath said. “You’d think you’d have tunnel vision on a play like that, but I definitely saw people along the sideline, whether it was fans or media. I could hear their voices.”

The moment was especially poignant for Galbreath because he had celebrated his birthday the day before.

“My sister was in town, and after game she was the first person I saw and celebrated with,” Galbreath said. “To this day, I still don’t know how she got on the field so fast.”

Sometimes, the contributions of the lesser-known players grow in stature and legend as time passes. Beirne’s TD pass to Criner spurred sidebars from the print media and interviews from television cameras, but in reality, it was just a screen pass that Criner turned into a touchdown.

“All I had to do was catch the ball and throw it to Juron,” Beirne said. “He did the rest.”

But no matter how trivial each play might seem, they are all magnified when millions of eyes across the state are focused on one game.
In 1998, Arizona was still hoping for a share of the Pac-10 title and a Rose Bowl berth when it faced ASU. UCLA was 10-0 at the time with a chance to play for the national championship, but the Bruins still had to play a make-up game with Miami.

Arizona led ASU 50-42 in the highest scoring Territorial Cup ever, but the Sun Devils and quarterback Ryan Kealy were driving for a potential tying touchdown and two-point conversion.

“That was my fault,” said cornerback Kelvin Hunter, who started on the ‘98 Dick Tomey-coached UA team, but was overshadowed by All-American Chris McAlister. “I had a chance to put the game away on the drive before that, but I dropped an interception.”

Hunter got a chance at redemption, and he didn’t fail. With ASU scrambling for one final pass into the end zone, Hunter found himself on the wrong side of the field in the chaos.

“I just told myself, ‘OK, I’m just going to play deep,’” Hunter said.
He did, and Kealy looked his way. Hunter batted down that last-ditch pass, and the Cats held on in what became a 12-1 season following a Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska (UCLA defaulted to the Rose Bowl after losing to Miami).

Hunter is now an assistant coach at Gilbert Williams Field High School where, ironically, former ASU quarterback Steve Campbell is the head coach.

“I always bring up that play,” Hunter said, laughing. “People from ASU try to make all kinds of excuses. They’ll say, ‘Well, you got us a lot when we were a small teacher’s college,’ but I say, ‘Whatever, the game was still played.’

“You can make all the excuses you want, but the bottom line is this: Arizona still owns the all-time series record (48-37-1). We own you guys.”
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