Saturday’s Territorial Cup rivalry game between Arizona and Arizona State marks the end of an era.
When the game comes to a close and the teams depart the field, the final traces of Dennis Erickson’s tenure as head coach of ASU will disappear from Sun Devil Stadium.
Though the five redshirt seniors Erickson recruited now firmly identify with current head coach Todd Graham and the values he’s imparted on the program since his hiring nearly four years ago, their final game at Sun Devil Stadium is an ode to their journey.
Saturday’s contest is the penultimate regular season trial for the Sun Devils, who have the Cal Golden Bears lurking on the back end of their schedule. Nevertheless, the Territorial Cup will serve as the farewell tour for a group of seniors who have had front row seats for the paradigmatic shift in program expectations.
The 18, 19 and 20-year olds on ASU’s roster don’t know any different, but the likes of quarterback Mike Bercovici, wide receiver Gary Chambers, offensive tackle Devin Goodman, defensive tackle Mo Latu and offensive guard Vi Teofilo are the final holdovers from a coach whose program never quite took the next step.
While the quintet from the Class of 2011 weren’t hand selected by Graham and his current staff, this week offers Graham and the Sun Devils an opportunity to celebrate their willingness to set aside differences and adapt for the road ahead.
“There's guys like Mike Bercovici and Mo (Latu), Vi (Teofilo), Gary Chambers, it's the last of the guys that were here when I got here, and really, really proud,” Graham said at his Monday press conference. “Those guys are every bit as much my guys as the guys I've recruited, I can tell you that, because I can remember sitting here and talking to them about what we were going to do and how we were going to change the culture and what kind of culture we were going to bring here. You look at those guys, they conformed and were transformed, and obviously that didn't happen overnight, but just really proud of them.”
The transition from Erickson to Graham may not have been seamless for ASU’s redshirt seniors, as the philosophical and schematic shifts were radical in nature.
After Graham spoke on Monday, Bercovici admitted it took a full year for players on the roster to begin believing in the Sun Devils’ goal of winning a national championship, which many players’ viewed as unattainable.
“When you've got a new coach, whether you're hearing him or not, it's just, am I really -- am I going to be -- am I bleeding maroon and gold the way this guy is. It took about -- I think it took about -- when coach Graham first stepped in here and he talked about a National Championship, he said, I can look at your faces and I can only see about half of you guys actually believe what I'm talking about. It took about one year to realize the next time he stood up here before the year and talked about winning championships, and everybody was on board, and that's just because of the steady, day-by-day things that he talked about.”
As Bercovici stood at the podium Monday extolling the virtues of buying into Graham’s system, he reflected back on the initial meetings the Sun Devils had with their new coach when Graham was first hired.
Ironically, Bercovici was among the players who stood to suffer the most from the coaching change, as his pro-style skillset didn’t lend itself to ASU’s new up-tempo and zone read offensive principles.
Still, Bercovici indicated the learning experience was humbling, and he used the time he spent molding his style of play to ASU’s new offense to become closer with his teammates.
“Just being a backup for the first four years I was here was something that I learned a lot through just being with my teammates, seeing how a college football roller coaster ride works, and just being able to see how playing with your brothers and competing on the field, in the classroom, summer workouts, can really bring a football team together, and just realized how unity and brotherhood is really what wins football games and the things that you remember for the rest of your life, not just Saturdays,” Bercovici said.
Erickson holdovers like Bercovici weren’t the only ones, though, who were forced to adjust to a disciplined outfit. The others simply had more of a choice.
Senior Day is also a goodbye for the likes of wide receiver D.J. Foster, Lloyd Carrington and Antonio Longino among others, who demonstrated faith in Graham’s program just as the foundation was being laid.
“Obviously guys like D.J. Foster that really, D.J. trusted us when we didn't really have anything, any body of work for him to trust, and obviously it's a really special group there, as well,” Graham said. “And how they've blended and just how close those guys are, you know, we've really sown really close relationships. No one knows that really but us, really just how strong those bonds are.”
But for all the sentimentality associated with properly acknowledging a senior class, ASU believes there’s no more important gift it can give its seniors than the opportunity to raise the Territorial Cup trophy one final time.
At 5-5, ASU is one victory short of securing bowl eligibility with two games to play, but Graham said defeating rival Arizona and hoisting the cup takes precedence over locking up a bowl berth.
When asked if he was thinking about the postseason in the context of a rivalry week, Graham eschewed the notion that ASU had its sights set on earning a bowl invitation.
“The most important statement, is that it's the Territorial Cup,” Graham said. “That's it. Enough said. That's how important it is.”
One year removed from a Territorial Cup that helped decide the Pac-12 South race, Arizona and Arizona State have faded into the middle of a conference highlighted by its parity this season.
Both teams scored important victories over the weekend, with the Wildcats stunning South division leader Utah in double overtime and the Sun Devils storming back from a 17-point deficit to overcome Washington on Saturday.
Arizona has used a pair of quarterbacks to stabilize its high-powered offense this season, and the victory over Utah was no different, as sophomore Anu Solomon and senior Jerrard Randall both contributed.
Solomon is the regular starter and more prolific passer while Randall is an explosive ball carrier who carries the ball frequently on designed quarterback runs. With Solomon’s injury status in question this week, ASU will prepare for both players.
“Obviously (Anu) Solomon is a very seasoned veteran, has a tremendous athleticism,” Graham said. “Both of them have tremendous ability to extend plays, can operate their system, understand their system very, very well. (Jerrard) Randall is a phenomenal athlete, really scary. I think he's their second or third leading rusher in the limited amount of plays that he's played. I mean, he throws the ball well. I think obviously Solomon is the more seasoned, more veteran, has more of a command of the offense, obviously, and Randall is just a tremendous athlete and very, very explosive.”
For the second consecutive season, ASU will have to go without senior bandit safety Jordan Simone against the Wildcats, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second quarter against Washington on Saturday.
Simone was closing in on back-to-back 100 tackle seasons as he leads ASU with 91, and his 74 solo tackles are the third highest total of any FBS player.
“I mean, he (Simone) epitomizes what our program – he’s got a heart of a champion,” Graham said. “Just a great giver of respect, and you just hate it for him. He got injured last year and wasn't able to play in the Territorial Cup, so he never got to play in one, so that's tough. But obviously his leadership is still very vital to us, and he'll still play a very key role as we move forward. But my heart goes out to him.”
ASU was able to withstand Simone’s loss during the second half of the Washington game, but the Sun Devils will have a tougher task against an Arizona offense that has given opposing defenses fits at times this season.
While Arizona’s scoring offense ranks fourth in the Pac-12 at 36.7 points per game (which includes a three-point output in a 49-3 loss to Washington), the Wildcats’ defense hasn’t been able to keep its opponents off the field.
The Wildcats are one of just four teams in the conference surrendering more than 450 yards of offense per game, while the 34.2 points per game Arizona is allowing is the second worst mark in the Pac-12.
Even though the Wildcats have been exposed defensively, Graham said it doesn’t matter what either team has done up to this point in the season. Historically, the Territorial Cup has proven unpredictable, and the turnover margin could prove to be the best indicator for which team wins this weekend.
“Well, one, it doesn't matter what the records are,” Graham said. “It doesn't matter what you've done up to this point. The bottom line, this is going to be a -- this is a rival game and one that is very passionate on both sides. This game has been a game where it comes down to turnovers. You've got to win that battle. The years we've won that battle, we've won, and the years we haven't, we haven't.”
The passion Graham mentioned was exuding from Bercovici on Monday, who appeared laser-focused in his resolve to go out a winner at Sun Devil Stadium.
Bercovici’s path to the starting quarterback position has been well documented, and he’s certainly someone who understands the significance of the journey ASU’s senior class has taken to arrive at this closing juncture.
In many ways, a Territorial Cup victory would serve as a defining moment for Bercovici and his peers from the Class of 2011 because of the way this season has paralleled their careers.
From the outset of their careers and up through the start of their final season together, this group had clear expectations and goals, only to have them altered. As sophomores, the five holdovers adapted and adjusted, making the most of their situations. As seniors, their team hasn’t quite recovered from failing to live up to expectations, but a win over Arizona will help this crew steer Graham and the Sun Devils back in the right direction, one final time.
“Obviously we're sitting in a situation where we have our most important football game ahead of us, and it's going to be a special, special opportunity to take the field one last time with this 2015 group,” Bercovici said. “I know that a lot of us guys have been talking about it, how we can't believe it's finally here. We look some of our freshmen in the face and say, you guys have no idea how fast this goes because you constantly say that this time goes quick, but it really does go by in the blink of an eye.