With stakes raised in Territorial Cup, it’s time to revisit ‘The Catch’

Arizona State's John Jefferson lays out to haul in Dennis Sproul's pass just before halftime in the 1975 meeting with Arizona.

TEMPE, Ariz. — The play is simply known as The Catch, although it was anything but simple. Arizona State wide receiver John Jefferson propelled himself into full layout position to reach a pass from Dennis Sproul late the first half of the Sun Devils’ 1975 victory over Arizona.

 In the still photo, the ball is in close proximity to Jefferson’s hands as he stretched 9 1/2 yards deep in the south end zone for a touchdown that would prove decisive in Arizona State’s 24-21 victory on Nov. 29 1975, a victory that pushed ASU into the Fiesta Bowl and led to an undefeated season and a No. 2 national ranking. Arizona spent the holidays at home — finishing 9-2 in the Western Athletic Conference was a ticket to nowhere in pre-gluttony era of college football bowl games.

 As time has passed, the "catch" has become perhaps the single most dramatic play in Arizona State sports history, not only for its athleticism but also for its significance. Blowups of the play are framed on the wall in the press box at Sun Devil Stadium and in the rotunda of fame in the Carson Student-Athlete Center, which houses the athletic offices at the south end of the stadium. The Jefferson end.

 If only he had caught the ball.

 "It was not even close to being a catch," said former UA defensive back Joe O’Sullivan, who was on the field for that play.

 "I don’t want to mess up ASU lore. I know his image was painted in the football offices for a long time making that catch. We’ll just leave it at that. All I will tell you is, it was a great effort, for sure."

 The 1975 game was the last time the stakes were as high as they will be Friday, when Arizona and ASU will meet at Arizona Stadium with a chance at the Pac-12 South title. UCLA will have to stub its toe, but if the Bruins lose to Stanford in the Rose Bowl, the ASU-Arizona winner will claim the South title and play Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 5 in the Bay Area. Both games are to begin at 1:30 pm Friday, and UA coach Rich Rodriguez has said no UCLA-Stanford scores will be posted or announced.

 Both Arizona and ASU are 9-2 and in the top 15 of the AP and college playoff polls, the first time they have met with that much national cred since the 1975 matched the10-0 Sun Devils against the 9-1 Wildcats for the WAC title and automatic berth in the Fiesta Bowl. In fact, this is the first time since then that both schools have had at least nine wins heading into the Territorial Cup game.

The 1975 Sun Devils went on to beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl to cap a 12-0 season and earn a No. 2 national ranking.

 Arizona State safety Mike Haynes chuckled when he heard the O’Sullivan’s claim.

 "I never considered that, because his hands are like glue," said Haynes, a NFL Hall of Famer who is a prostate cancer survivor and serves as a national spokesman for prostate cancer awareness. "It would have been hard to believe that he didn’t catch it. He was just that good."

 Haynes, a senior in 1975, recalled Jefferson practicing just those types of all-out efforts upon arrival at Arizona State two years before.

 "Just jogging around the edge of the football field, he would run and dive and pretend the ball was being thrown," Haynes said. "I said to myself, ‘Maybe I didn’t think about wide receivers the way I should.’ It wasn’t unusual for him."

 There is no question that Jefferson’s catch would have been reviewed had the play happened last week. Did Jefferson land in bounds, or did he come down on the back line of the end zone? Did he have possession and control of the ball? Photographic evidence is at best inconclusive, but there was no dispute on the field at the time. The referee ruled touchdown, and Arizona did not argue. Thirty-nine years later, then-Arizona coach Jim Young was not interested in revisiting the outcome.

 "It was a good catch . . . that’s the way it was in those days," Young said. "We didn’t question it, because the official said it was a good catch. I still would rather not have the instant replay. I’m old school. I’m not interested in that argument. He caught it in my book because they won the game with it."

 Young asked Jefferson about it years later, when Jefferson was coaching at Kansas.

 "I asked him if he made the catch and he said he did, so we’ll go with that," Young said.

 O’Sullivan was on the opposite side of the field as Jefferson stretched for the ball, and at his angle said he was looking directly into the play, noticing the band just behind the end zone as it prepared to enter the field for halftime. 

 "What happened was, it kind of went into his hands and it kind of came into his arms. And then as he hit the ground, the ball squeezed out," said O’Sullivan, who lives in the Dallas area is a top executive at the NCH Corporation.

 "We were pointing at the ball. He (Jefferson) is laying close by. I remember seeing like a tuba player’s foot right there where we were pointing at the ball. I can still see it in my head." 

 Both Young and Haynes remembered another, less-mentioned play that was just as meaningful in the outcome midway through the fourth quarter. Arizona designed a pass play that would move Haynes away from the middle of the field to clear space for Scott Piper. Normally a stand-up wide receiver, Piped lined up at tight end on the opposite side of the line to which the Wildcats set out two wide receivers. Haynes moved to cover one of the wideouts, and Piper broke free on a post pattern for a 71-yard touchdown. But Piper was not used to lining up in a three-point stance, and his helmet was judged to be over the line of scrimmage, so the play was called back for offside.

 "That was a big potential play for us," Young said.

 The UA ran the same play out of that formation again, but this time ASU pressured UA quarterback Bruce Hill into an incompletion. Haynes ran to the coaching staff the first time the play was run.

 "We didn’t really have a defense for that," Haynes said.

 Four years earlier, Los Angeles-born Haynes got a feeling for the passion the rivalry stirred.

 "Leading up to the week of that game, we had seniors who had been injured, hadn’t played in weeks. They were asking coach (Frank) Kush if they could play. It was their last chance to play against the U of A," Haynes said.

 "You saw guys biting their lip in the huddle, dealing with the pain they were in because they did not want to come out of the game. They wanted to win this game. I went ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ By the time I was a senior, I totally understood the rivalry. I wanted to be the reason that we won. If no other game, that was the game I wanted to have a great game in."

 Follow Jack Magruder on Twitter

VIDEO: FOXSportsArizona.com writers Tyler Lockman and Steve Rivera share their thoughts on Friday’s Territorial Cup showdown between Arizona and Arizona State.