Wildcats Edge Sun Devils, Claim South Title

TUCSON - When Arizona State and Arizona get together, there’s usually no shortage of on-field dramatics and Friday was no exception. With a potential spot in next week’s Pac-12 Championship Game in San Francisco on line, both teams played down to the wire as Arizona’s defense came up with a late game stand to preserve the 42-35 win, wrestling the South division crown away from the Sun Devils.

Even from the game’s early stages, it was clear that Friday’s edition of the Territorial Cup was sure to be both thrilling and unpredictable as Arizona opened things up with a 25 yard fumble return for touchdown by junior safety Anthony Lopez less than a minute into the game.

The Sun Devils returned the favor by evening the score with a fumble return of their own later in the quarter when junior defensive lineman Demetrius Cherry recovered a botched snap by Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon for a two yard defensive touchdown, the 14th defensive touchdown for ASU under Graham.

The two sides would continue to trade scores, going into halftime tied at 21 before things began to sputter out of control for the Sun Devils on both sides of the ball in the third quarter.

Already without starting safety Jordan Simone, Arizona State found themselves even more shorthanded on defense when linebacker Laiu Moeakiola left the game with a leg injury. Arizona opened up the second half by marching 75 yards on nine plays to jump back ahead on a Nick Wilson one yard touchdown run, one of his three on the day.

After stopping the Sun Devils on their next drive, the Wildcats struck again when Wilson broke free for a 72 yard touchdown run, putting Arizona ahead 35-21 less than six minutes into the second half.

ASU would fail to score before the end of the quarter, prompting Head Coach Todd Graham to make a move at quarterback, benching senior Taylor Kelly for Mike Bercovici in a last ditch effort to ignite the Sun Devil offense.

“We just felt like we needed a spark,” said Graham afterwards. “Being behind, we felt Mike’s ability to throw the ball would help us. Whether that was a mistake or not, I don’t know. I just know we had to do something to generate some offense.”

The junior immediately made his mark as the Sun Devils drove 65 yards on six plays, capping off the drive with a two yard Kody Kohl touchdown catch to pull within seven.

However, after an Arizona State defensive stand, Bercovici was intercepted Arizona safety Jourdon Grandon on a forced throw in double coverage which would eventually set up a 20 yard touchdown pass from Solomon to Grant Samajie with 8:31 to play.

The Sun Devils would pull within seven again after a nine yard Bercovici touchdown pass to tight end De’Marieya Nelson but we were unable to draw any closer as the Arizona defense came up with fourth down stop late in the game to preserve the win.

“Yeah, it sucks,” said Bercovici. “It should never be this way. We’ve practiced like champions since January. We’ve prepared for these types of situations. We were not tired out there. We were prepared but at the end of the day, we don’t lose to these guys.

“I’m 2-2 against them now and every single time we lose, it never feels right.”

For the game, Bercovici completed 14-22 pass attempts for 123 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in relief of Kelly who finished with similar numbers, completing 13-22 attempts for 144 yards and two touchdowns.

However, the story for the Sun Devils on Friday was struggling to find any sort of consistency on offense against the Wildcats.

ASU rushed for 113 yards on 43 carries and its quarterbacks were sacked seven times.

Defensively, the Wildcats were led by sophomore linebacker Scooby Wright who tallied 13 tackles, five tackles for a loss and two sacks on the day.

“I hate to come in here and say that we beat ourselves, but we really did,” said Graham. “Turning the football over killed us. We turned the football over twice and then we get the football at the one inch line and don’t score, that really hurt.

“I said our program is going to compete for championships and we are seven points shy today.”

Without two of its key contributors, the Sun Devil defense had its share of struggles corralling the Wildcats as well as Solomon completed 15-21 pass attempts for 208 yards and two touchdowns and freshman Nick Wilson rushed for 178 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries in the win.

“We were trying to play with our nickel back in base defense, which was a challenge to try and make all the calls and all that,” said Graham. “But I can’t ask anymore from those kids on defense. I thought they gave me everything they had. Our guys, from an effort standpoint, did a great job.”

While Graham and the Sun Devils turned to Bercovici on Friday when in search of answers, both the coach and back-up quarterback were quick to point out that the change is not permanent and that Kelly is expected to be the team’s starting signal caller in whichever bowl game ASU plays in next month.

“Whatever the circumstances (are), some people have bad days,” said Bercovici. “I love Taylor. I’ve been with that kid for four years. I have the most respect for him on the entire team. We’ve been weight room buddies, study buddies, we have school together every single day and if the opportunity calls for me to come in, I just need to do my job.

“He has a C on his chest for a reason and just because he didn’t have a perfect day today, it doesn’t mean that he’s not deserving of his last game in a Sun Devil uniform.”

With the win, coupled with Stanford’s upset of UCLA, Arizona claimed its first Pac-12 South championship and a spot in next Friday’s conference championship game against Oregon.

Meanwhile, the Sun Devils closed out the regular season by losing two of their final three games and are left wondering what could have been while waiting to hear which postseason bowl game they’ll be selected for in the next couple of weeks.

“I mean, 9-3, at the end of the day, we have more wins than losses but our expectations are 15-0,” said Bercovici. “I’m not going to say it’s a letdown, but we know that we could have achieved more, especially with the outcome of the game over there in Los Angeles. But we’re going to rise up because we’re champions; arm in arm. We’re going to get back together.

“Come Sunday, we’ll make good decisions for these next couple of weeks as a team because that’s how we’re trained and we’re going to come back and whatever bowl game we’re in, we’re going to be blessed to have the opportunity to go to a bowl game and we’re going to go get that tenth win for the seniors.”

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