No. 11 Arizona tops rival Arizona St. to advance to Pac-12 title game
TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez didn’t want the score of the UCLA-Stanford game to be displayed inside Arizona Stadium, nor did he want word to leak down to the sideline.
The focus had to be on beating rival Arizona State in the Territorial Cup. If that led to the Pac-12 South title, even better.
It worked out perfectly on both counts for the Wildcats.
Nick Wilson ran for 178 yards and three touchdowns and No. 11 Arizona held off No. 13 Arizona State on Friday to claim the Pac-12 South title.
"Right after the game when I was walking out to shake Coach (Todd) Graham’s hand, I think either my wife or my son said: `Did you know UCLA lost?’" Rodriguez said. "That made me bounce a little more in the air."
Arizona (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) needed to beat its biggest rival and have Stanford knock off No. 8 UCLA to win the Pac-12 South.
The Cardinal took care of the first part by rolling over the Bruins. The Wildcats handled their end with a stream of big plays and a final defensive stand.
Anu Solomon was a little slow after an ankle injury last week, but threw for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Samajie Grant.
Wilson was again explosive, bursting off for a 72-yard touchdown run in the second half after running for 218 yards last week.
Arizona’s defense had a touchdown on the game’s third play, a goal-line stand and forced a turnover on downs after Arizona State started its final drive near midfield.
The victory combined with Stanford’s win earned the Wildcats a rematch with No. 2 Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game on Dec. 5 at Levi’s Stadium in the Bay Area. Arizona beat the Ducks 31-24 in Eugene on Oct. 2.
"This is what you live for," said Arizona safety Jourdan Grandon, who had a key interception late.
The Sun Devils (9-3, 6-3) had trouble getting out of their own way.
Their offense had a turnover that led to a score on its first drive, another to set up Arizona with a short field for a touchdown and couldn’t punch it in with four tries inside Arizona’s 3.
ASU’s defense was hit with two long scoring plays and wasn’t able to consistently stop the Wildcats.
Mike Bercovici provided a spark after replacing Taylor Kelly at quarterback, but a final drive stalled at Arizona’s 40, dashing the Sun Devils’ hopes of a second straight Pac-12 South title.
"I hate to come in here and say we beat ourselves, but that’s really what we did," Graham said.
The latest Duel in the Desert for the Territorial Cup was arguably the most anticipated in the rivalry’s 88-game history.
The usual bragging rights were there, of course. A shot at the Pac-12 South for both teams added to it.
The game lived up to the hype, too, the big plays coming right out of the gate.
Arizona scored 44 seconds in on Anthony Lopez’s 25-yard fumble recovery after Scooby Wright sacked and stripped Kelly.
The Sun Devils tied it on a defensive touchdown of their own when Demetrius Cherry rumbled in for a 2-yard score after Solomon bobbled and snap and couldn’t cover it.
Two of the nation’s best offenses, two defensive touchdowns to start — of course.
More big plays followed, on offense instead.
Grant caught a ball down the sideline, made a couple of jukes and cut back for a 69-yard touchdown.
Jalen Strong, as he usually does, answered spectacularly: laying out for a 50-yard reception, nonchalantly snaring a 3-yard touchdown catch with his left hand to tie it at 14l.
Wilson put Arizona back up on a 21-yard run on fourth-and-short.
A muffed punt by Devonte Neal set up a 7-yard touchdown pass from Kelly to Demario Richard that pulled the Sun Devils even at halftime.
"It was eerily quiet at halftime," Rodriguez said. "They weren’t really saying much, but at about the 9-minute mark of halftime, they were ready to get back onto the field."
Arizona seemed to take control in the third quarter, gaining a little breathing room when Wilson scored on 1-yard dive and a 72-yard burst up the middle to put the Wildcats up 35-21.
Bercovici gave the Sun Devils a lift, then a letdown after replacing Kelly late in the third quarter.
He hit tight end Kody Kohl on a 2-yard TD pass early in the fourth, but threw a ball into coverage that Grandon picked off, setting up Arizona with a short field. Two plays later, Solomon rolled right and found Grant on a 20-yard touchdown pass, pushing the lead back to two touchdowns.
Bercovici hit De’Marieya Nelson for a 9-yard touchdown and Arizona State got the ball back with less than 3 minutes left, but turned it over on downs when Bercovici threw an incompletion.
"It’s the ultimate bitter taste in our mouths and it’s going to last the rest of our lives," Bercovici said.