Waiting in the line of Arizona State seniors ready to be honored before Saturday’s game, injured ASU senior safety Jordan Simone ditched his crutches in a symbolic act of perseverance.
Though he suffered a serious season-ending knee injury against Washington on Nov. 14, Simone walked under his own power to receive a hug from ASU head coach Todd Graham and then through the tunnel of his teammates on Senior Day in his last appearance at Sun Devil Stadium.
In following Simone’s lead – despite heading into the game with no Pac-12 South standings implications on the line for the first time in two seasons – ASU was determined to make its last game of the 2015 season at Sun Devil Stadium end with a ‘W’ in the 89th installment of the Territorial Cup.
"It's a great time to be a Sun Devil," Graham said, improving his record to 3-1 against Arizona. "We didn't hit the mark where we wanted to this year, but that one heals you up quite a bit. I liked that one. That was worth about five wins there, at least that's what all the fans say when I talk to them.
"I'm just grateful for these seniors because I can't tell you how fragile this has been for now going on four years. We've won a lot of close football games and these guys have busted their butt and given me everything they've got and I'm just really, really proud of them."
In fitting fashion to usher in the new era of Sun Devil football and honor the old on Senior Day, ASU freshman safety Kareem Orr had the game-sealing pick-six with 3:33 remaining in the fourth quarter and then ASU senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington had a pick-six with 2:30 left in the game to give ASU a commanding 52-30 lead.
"My son caught the game-winning pass his senior year in high school against Lake Highlands when I was a head coach, and I almost had a tear in my eye, and I almost had a tear in my eye today when Lloyd intercepted that pass because that guy, what an incredible young man," Graham said. "I personally coach him."
With its 52-37 win over Arizona at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday, ASU secured bowl eligibility and improved to 6-5, (4-4) on the season heading into its final game of the regular season next week against California. The Wildcats dropped to 6-6, 3-6 one week removed from beating then-No. 10 Utah last week.
The Sun Devils are now bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season under Todd Graham, a feat no other ASU coach has accomplished in their first four seasons. It is the second time in program history a coach has taken to his team to four consecutive bowl games, the other was Frank Kush in the 1970-1973 seasons.
Orr's interception was his fifth of the year, the most interceptions for any ASU freshman in a single season.
In addition to ASU's two interceptions, the Sun Devils came into Saturday's game first in the Pac-12 with 36 sacks and padded its lead with eight more, led by junior linebacker Salamo Fiso's 2.5 sacks and senior Devilbacker Antonio Longino's 1.5 sacks. ASU's eight sacks tied a season-high. The Sun Devils' defense had 11 tackles for loss after coming into the game tied for No. 4 nationally, averging 8.7 per game.
But while ASU's defense ultimately sealed the game for the Sun Devils on Senior Day, ASU senior wide receiver Devin Lucien stole the show in the first half and was therefore was named the Bob Moran Territorial Cup MVP. Lucien led the Sun Devils with nine catches for 190 yards and one touchdown catch in Lucien’s first and last Territorial Cup in front of 64,855 in attendance.
"You know, he (Lucien) has been great," Graham said. "What a great kid. He has really exceeded what I thought that that would be able to do in that short period of time."
Yet despite standout performances from a handful of ASU players, prior to Orr's pick-six, Arizona seemingly had one last ditch effort to go down and try and tie up a 38-30 game with 4:08 remaining in the fourth quarter. Instead, Arizona redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Dawkins threw the first of his two interceptions in the game's final four minutes.
With 10:22 left in the first half, Dawkins replaced Arizona's already backup quarterback Jerrard Randall, who was filling in for sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon, who was ruled out earlier in the day due to a concession he suffered last week against Utah.
Randall struggled for the majority of the first half, over-throwing receivers in each of the Wildcats' first five series to start the game and also fumbling the ball with 10:01 left to go in the first quarter. Before being taken out of the game, Randall threw 13 passes for only four completions and 35 yards.
Dawkins previously played in five games for the Wildcats, completing 4 of 8 passes with no interceptions and no touchdowns. He finished the night completing 16 of 30 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 43 yards.
However, despite the 38-30 score late in the fourth quarter, the game wasn't always that close. In fact, it was far from it.
ASU jumped out to a comfortable 31-10 lead at halftime -- gaining 400 yards of total offense to Arizona's 141 in the first half -- but the Wildcats found a way to claw back in the third quarter. Arizona scored 13 points in the third quarter to ASU's zero in a game that seemed headed to another down-to-the-wire rivalry matchup between the two schools.
The Sun Devils offense stalled in their four full drives in the third quarter, with their first resulting in senior quarterback Mike Bercovici fumbling and losing the ball with 13:43 left to go in the third. Their following three drives ended up with punts -- two from ASU's own side of the field.
"I always tell them, hey, don't have a let down," Graham said. "Let's don't have -- I need to shut up. I think I'm making us have a letdown. It was not -- I was concerned. Even though I felt like we were under control because I didn't think they could sustain drives and score because I didn't think they could run the ball. So if we didn't give up cheap ones in the air, I thought they were going to struggle."
Bercovici ended the game completing 21 of 32 passes for 315 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
In contrast to ASU's third quarter, Arizona used Bercovici's fumble to score a 37-yard field goal with 11:32 left in the third quarter, then put in a 46-yard field goal with 6:52 left in the third, and had a 95-yard touchdown by pass from Dawkins to junior wide receiver Trey Griffey to make the score 31-23.
"I was so infuriated because we had played so well," Graham said. "And I mean, we get a 90-yard curl route? What was that? How does that happen? How do you go the whole game and play like that and give up that? So I think they do that to agitate me."
But headed into the fourth quarter only up 31-23, the Sun Devils stormed back after their 87-yard third-quarter performance to Arizona's 163 total yards in the third quarter. In ASU's first drive after giving up the 95-yard touchdown pass to Griffey, it had one of the longest offensive drives of the season, resulting in an ASU touchdown.
But in a game full of vertical deep shots down the field, the most crucial moment of the game came down to a fourth and one play by ASU.
In the middle of the 11-play, 74-yard scoring drive, ASU was facing a fourth and one from on Arizona's 48-yard line with 12:07 left in the fourth quarter. ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell called a timeout -- the team's last in the game -- as the play clock was winding down to zero and in the huddle, Graham was advocating the punt the ball back to Arizona, but his players said otherwise.
"I told them you better dang sure make this thing," Graham said. "Because at first I went, get the punt team, no, don't get the punt team. Call timeout. Get the punt team, no. And then (special teams coordindator Shawn) Slocum said, 'Coach, the rules say punt it. We're playing good on defense, punt it.' And then (senior offensive guard) V(i Teofilo) didn't say much and those guys and (senior center) Nick (Kelly) said, "Hey, run the ball. We'll get it." I said, "You guys better make it."
And like Graham had ordered, ASU did just that. Bercovici rushed for 10 yards to the Arizona 38-yard line and with 10:14 left in the fourth quarter, ASU senior wide receiver D.J. Foster had a 1-yard touchdown run, making the score 38-23 after both ASU sophomore running back Demario Richard and sophomore running back Kalen Ballage went down with injuries earlier in the drive.
Richard, who had 14 carries for 105 yards and one touchdown, was ruled out for the rest of the game with an ankle injury, according to a press box announcement. Ballage finished the night with 18 carries for 110 yards, but more than half of that came on a 65-yard run in the first half.
But down 15 points Arizona wouldn't go down that easily. After a 43-yard pass from Dawkins to Griffey, the Wildcats went down and scored a touchdown off wide receiver Tyrell Johnson's 17-yard touchdown catch from Dawkins, only putting the Wildcats down eight points.
Then Orr happened and the rest was all ASU -- just like it was to start the game.
ASU went up 14-0 early after scoring touchdowns in back to back possessions late in the first quarter, with credit due to Lucien in both possessions. In the Sun Devils fourth series of the game, Bercovici hit Lucien for a 58-yard vertical shot down the field to give ASU a first and goal at the 8-yard line.
On the following play, Richard broke multiple tackles on his way to an eight-yard touchdown run with 3:01 remaining in the first quarter. With the touchdown, ASU went from gaining 1.8 per play to 4.9 yards per play.
On ASU’s next series, Bercovici hit Lucien again for a 59-yard shot down the middle of the field for a touchdown score with 1:07 left in the first quarter. By the end of the first quarter, ASU had out-gained the Wildcats 188 to 62 total yards.
But the Wildcats weren't quiet for long, scoring its first points of the night off a pick-six by Arizona sophomore corner Cameron Denson on Bercovici’s quick pass at ASU’s own 21-yard line with 14:27 left to go in the second quarter to cut ASU’s lead, 14-7.
And after ASU responded with a touchdown off Bercovici’s 1-yard touchdown run with 10:33 left in the second quarter, the Wildcats scored a field goal to make the score 21-10 with 5:47 left in the second quarter.
With ASU up 24-10 with 5:38 remaining in the first half, the Sun Devils again connected on a long vertical shot down the field with Bercovici hitting redshirt freshman wide receiver Jalen Harvey for a 41-yard touchdown pass with 4:00 left in the second quarter to give ASU a 31-10 lead headed into halftime. That was Harvey's first catch in his ASU career.
ASU forced the first turnover of the game with ASU sophomore linebacker Christian Sam knocking the ball out from Randall at the Arizona’s 49-yard line with 10:01 left to go in the first quarter.
In both 2012 and 2013 ASU won the Territorial Cup 41-34 and 58-21 respectively and in both years, the Sun Devils won the turnover margin, forcing Arizona’s quarterback to turn the ball over three times in each matchup.
When the Sun Devils lost 42-35 in Tucson in 2014, ASU lost the turnover battle 2-1. And on Saturday afternoon, ASU won the turnover battle 3-2, winning the game along with it.
"I mean, this game is very personal to me," Graham said. "It's one that we needed to win because we need to win next week. We need to win the bowl game. That is not still -- we have not reached our mark. But we're definitely headed towards it."