TEMPE, Ariz. — The game got ugly early … and then it got worse for Arizona.
It was an all-caps UGLY night in Sun Devil Stadium for the Wildcats in a 58-21 loss to host Arizona State.
“They played well and we played poorly,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said in one of the first things out of his mouth in his postmortem press conference. “I’ve said it a number of times: We’re not good enough to play poorly and win. And we certainly didn’t play well against this team.”
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It was Arizona’s biggest loss — by margin — since it fell to the Sun Devils 56-14 in 1996 when ASU went to the Rose Bowl.
This one was just as one-sided. In fact, the only thing Arizona, now 7-5 overall and 4-5 in the Pac-12, really won was the coin flip. Even then it deferred.
Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, who had 157 rushing yards and a touchdown, said the Wildcats found their footing too late to have any impact. It was true, Arizona’s start was where it all ended.
“We didn’t get settled, didn’t get comfortable,” Carey said. “We didn’t get our feet wet and it paid off (for the Sun Devils).”
By the time Arizona looked up it was 27-0 — its worst deficit of the season.
“I didn’t turn around and tell the guys to keep competing,” Rodriguez said. “We had played so poorly and had some opportunities. Had we just had a little momentum … I thought we had a little in the third quarter, but they made a play and that was that.”
The play was huge.
With 7:24 left in the third quarter and Arizona down 30-14 and driving, Damarious Randall stepped in front of a B.J. Denker pass and returned it 64 yards untouched. Four or five times the play worked, Denker said. But on that one a “robber” read his eyes and made a play on the ball.
“He played it well,” said Denker, who threw three interceptions a week after playing so well against Oregon.
Arizona added a fumble to the mess, marking it its first four-turnover game since, well, the last Territorial Cup.
“Before the pick six it was a 13-point game (really 16) and we were driving and feeling pretty good,” Denker said. “There were too many mistakes on my part. They had 51 points, but 28 were the offense’s fault.”
ASU, winners of the Pac-12 South, played well all night. The SUn Devils beat Arizona in every phase and not just by a little but overwhelmingly. Rodriguez called the loss “embarrassing.” It was the second consecutive defeat to the Sun Devils, but this one was decisive.
“I’m not embarrassed of our players or embarrassed being their coach,” Rodriguez clarified. “I’m embarrassed that we didn’t play our best game. I wished we would have but we didn’t. You have to give them credit. They’re a good team.”
Saturday night, in front of 72,542 fans, Arizona was not.
In a season of big wins and huge performances, Arizona couldn’t come up with any magic in the regular-season finale.
“I told the team it shouldn’t define them,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to be hard and we will all be ticked off for 24 hours or more. But it shouldn’t define our senior class and our team. We’ve had nice wins. We will be better. We’ll get better.”
Rodriguez is convinced of that. But on this night ASU was better … much better.
It was all ASU’s black (jersey) magic. It had some voodoo on Arizona’s copper tops.
After Arizona scored to begin the second half, every possession brought hope and seemingly all it resulted in was despair. Randall’s interception was the signature moment among many.
The end of the end came when ASU receiver Jaelen Strong broke loose and quarterback Taylor Kelly found him in stride for a 61-yard touchdown pass to make it 44-21. On the ensuing kickoff, Arizona Daniel Jenkins fumbled the return and Arizona State was back in business.
And there was still the fourth quarter to be played.
When did all the problems begin? Likely when the team got off the bus, but officially when Arizona couldn’t stop ASU on its first offensive series. It couldn’t stop ASU on its second possession, either. It was 6-0 early.
And, well, Arizona’s Denker couldn’t get the offense going even a smidgen. Arizona’s offensive impotence was compounded by the unlikeliest of things: It couldn’t pick up a yard on three different fourth-down situations with arguably the best running back (Carey) in the college game.
Rodriguez said it felt more like five or six times his team didn’t muster that needed yard. Adding to Rodriguez’s misery was his decision not to go for it on fourth down with just more than 1:20 left in the half. Instead, in facing 4th-and-5 from ASU’s 25-yard line, he sent out kicker Jake Smith, who missed a 42-yard field goal that would have made it 27-10.
In hindsight, Rodriguez said, he would have gone for it “but I was hesitant. When we missed the kick it’s easy to say that. That’s on me. We should have gone for it.”
Then again, who would have thought Carey would have been stopped on three short-yardage runs?
“I wish we could have got more holes for him because he’s a phenomenal player,” Rodriguez said. “He runs extremely hard. He does his best every play.”
It wasn’t good enough.
In a nutshell, that was Arizona’s problem all night. It couldn’t penetrate ASU’s suffocating defense.
“This one sucks, this one stings,” said Denker. “Luckily, we have a bowl game with a month to prepare. If we go out with a win in the bowl game, it’ll feel better than this.”