TEMPE, Ariz. — As Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton did a lap around Frank Kush Field with the Territorial Cup trophy Saturday, it figuratively held inside it even greater spoils than the standard bragging rights.
With a 58-21 win over in-state rival Arizona at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday night, No. 12 ASU finished the regular season with its seventh straight win and locked up home-field advantage for next week’s Pac-12 championship game.
While the spoils of a win over a bitter rival are always sweet, the Sun Devils (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) stuck to the mantra they’ve preached week after week: They’re not done.
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“It’s really sweet, and we’re happy about it and it means a lot to us … we’ve got to enjoy it tonight, but then we’ve got to let it go because we still haven’t done nothing yet,” senior safety Alden Darby said. “We’ve got to go out there and win next week. Then we’ll have a little bit bigger celebration.”
Added coach Todd Graham: “That game meant a lot to us tonight. I know it’s the most important game to our fans, but it’s not the one that we’re after. The one we’re after is next week.”
ASU’s chances of beating Stanford next week to reach its first Rose Bowl since the 1996 season certainly seem improved after Saturday’s win. The Sun Devils improved to 7-0 at home this season and have beaten opponents there by an average of 28.3 points.
Clearly, home-field advantage is a big deal for ASU.
“The advantage to play at home — you can’t put a price tag on that,” Graham said. “It’s huge. There is no question we play our best football out here, and our guys operate pretty special out here.”
ASU fans turned out as well as they have for any game in recent memory. The 72,542 in attendance made up the 12th-largest crowd in the stadium’s history and should provide a boost against Stanford next week.
The packed house may have played a small part Saturday, but just about every aspect of the Sun Devils’ attack overwhelmed the Wildcats, who entered the week on a high after upsetting then-No. 5 Oregon in Tucson last week. Any momentum gained then clearly did not make it to Tempe.
“We made some mistakes tonight, but we dominated the game,” Graham said. “We dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football. And four fourth-down stops — that’s real defense.”
While ASU did set a Territorial Cup record with its 58 points, it was the defense that truly throttled UA. The unit held Wildcats quarterback B.J. Denker to 175 passing yards and intercepted him three times, one shy of Denker’s season total entering the game.
In what was a clear dagger, sophomore safety Damarious Randall took a third-quarter interception 64 yards for a touchdown to give the Sun Devils a 37-14 lead just as the Wildcats appeared to be building momentum. Linebacker Carl Bradford finished with four tackles for loss.
Perhaps the defense’s biggest moment came in the second quarter. After driving into ASU territory, UA had three downs to move the ball three yards. Pac-12 rushing leader Ka’Deem Carey got one yard and Denker another, but ASU linebacker stuffed Salamo Fiso stuffed Carey on fourth down to maintain the Sun Devils’ commanding 20-0 lead. It was the first of three times ASU stopped Carey on fourth down.
The offense dazzled as well, even without Marion Grice, who missed the game with a leg injury and also will miss next week’s Pac-12 title game. Amassing 478 yards of offense, ASU scored more points than it had in all but one game this season (62 against USC).
Starting in place of Grice, sophomore D.J. Foster rushed for a career high 124 yards and two touchdowns. He was named the Bob Moran Territorial Cup MVP for his performance, which should also inspire confidence in the Grice-less offense.
“I knew that it was going to be my turn,” Foster said. “I just tried to step up, and my coaches and my teammates prepared me well for this week, and I just wanted them to have the trust in me that nothing was going to let down.”
While Graham admitted that it hurt not having Grice on the field, he also said he was not surprised the offense still thrived. Quarterback Taylor Kelly threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns, and receiver Jaelen Strong caught four passes for 142 yards and a touchdown.
“We’ve got a great system where if we don’t have negative-yardage plays, we’re going to score points,” Graham said. “That’s something that I’ve said all along. … It’s far more than just one person.”
Tight end De’Marieya Nelson turned in a performance every bit as important as Foster’s. Entering the game, he had carried the ball once for zero yards this season. On Saturday, he rushed eight times for 35 yards and two touchdowns, caught one pass for 21 yards and also forced and recovered a fumble that led to a touchdown in the third quarter.
The all-out domination on both sides made for a nightmarish 60 minutes of football for an Arizona team that a week ago looked like a giant killer, and for coach Rich Rodriguez, the explanation was pretty simple.
“We played poorly and they didn’t,” Rodriguez said. “I am not embarrassed of my players, and I am not embarrassed to be their coach, but I am embarrassed by the way we played.”
ASU is now on the cusp of the goal it has talked about all season: a spot in the Rose Bowl. It must go through No. 8 Stanford to get there, but with the way the Sun Devils have played during their seven-game win streak, they have to like their chances.
Regardless of the result, Saturday’s conference championship game may be the highest-profile game in Tempe in ASU’s history. The Sun Devils are just one step away from glory long absent from the program. They have the opportunity to vault the program into another teir, a level ASU has not seen since its last trip to Pasadena.
“I think we’re starting to get a little buzz, but I feel like we’re still looked at as underdogs,” Darby said. “I feel like (observers) are still waiting for that big game, which is next week. Next week is going to decide if they’re going to wake up and see we’re a national team.”