TUCSON--In Friday night's Territorial Cup, Arizona State eschewed its traditional maroon and gold uniforms in favor of a copper and gray combination.
Ironically, the decision proved fitting for a 2016 team that never came close to matching the image head coach Todd Graham envisioned for the Sun Devils.
A program supposedly built on discipline and defense lacked both in a crushing 56-35 loss to rival Arizona that prevented the Sun Devils from reaching Graham's minimum expectation: becoming bowl-eligible.
The Sun Devils finished the season 5-7, with a 2-5 mark in conference play as ASU dropped its sixth straight contest to an Arizona squad that finished the year 3-9, with a 1-8 record against Pac-12 opponents.
"As far as us, that was the worst performance we've had since we've been here," Graham said. "That was embarrassing. No excuses, but that was very, very difficult to watch. So we let our university down down, let our program down, and that was difficult, we just didn't show up at all."
While ASU may not have been wearing the maroon and gold uniforms most have come to identify the program by, nearly every other characteristic that has come to define the Sun Devils this season was on full display against the Wildcats.
On the third play from scrimmage, a team that entered the weekend allowing more 70-plus yard plays than 126 other FBS programs allowed Wildcats' quarterback Brandon Dawkins to scramble 71 yards for a touchdown.
An offense that has spent nearly as much time moving backward as it has forward over the last month followed up Dawkins' score by coming up empty on its first five possessions of the half, as ASU dug itself into a 28-7 hole.
A program that has prided itself on its discipline throughout the Graham era and has watched as the discipline has faded away even suffered its most major lapse yet against the Wildcats, as starting sophomore field safety Armand Perry was ejected for a flagrant personal foul penalty in the end zone that took place on the Arizona score that put the Sun Devils down by three scores.
"We had too many penalties," Graham said of a team that finished its third straight game with at least eight penalties. "We had so many penalties tonight. Just undisciplined stuff. That's three straight games we've had eight and nine penalties and that's totally uncharacteristic of our program."
After starting the season 5-1, the Sun Devils devolved into an injury-riddled mess, failing at their first five chances to secure bowl eligibility and giving up at least 40 points in all five of those games.
But surely, even the worst stretch of Graham's five-year tenure would have to subside against an Arizona team suffering through one of the most dreadful seasons in school history, right? Wrong.
On Friday night, ASU took a trip down south and discovered just how far south the direction of its program could go.
Armed with the worst passing defense in the country, ASU limited the Wildcats to just three completions for 77 yards, but more than made up for it with a historically poor performance against the run. Arizona finished the night with 48 carries for a single-game program record 511 yards, as the Wildcats never even needed to attempt a second half pass to secure a blowout victory.
For the first time since 1993, three different Arizona players rushed for more than 100 yards, as quarterback Brandon Dawkins racked up 183 yards on 12 attempts, starting running back Samajie Grant accounted for 176 yards on 19 attempts, and backup running back Zach Green added 126 yards on 14 attempts.
"You can't play that bad and make up any excuses," Graham said. "We have no excuses. I thought we played atrocious , and we weren't prepared on defense. To give up that many yards rushing is just absolutely ridiculous. We haven't done that since I've been here. We haven't had a game like that since I've been here."
For as beat up as the Sun Devils were on the defensive end, the team's offense didn't give ASU a chance until Arizona's lead proved too large to overcome. Trailing 28-7, the Sun Devils began to show their first signs of life as sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins led ASU's first offensive scoring drive with under five minutes to play in the first half.
Aside from a strip-sack from sophomore defensive end Joseph Wicker that led to a 42-yard fumble return touchdown from junior Koron Crump, ASU hadn't so much as sniffed a red zone opportunity until the closing moments of the first half against a Wildcats team that entered the contest ninth in the Pac-12 in total defense and 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense.
But with under five minutes to go in the first half against the Wildcats, Wilkins led a 13-play, 94-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 21-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Tim White that finally gave life to an ASU team that hasn't showed much of it since the month of September.
Down 28-14 at halftime, the Sun Devils emerged from the locker room with a purpose, at least on offense, and Wilkins led back-to-back touchdown drives. The first, a two-yard rush from junior back Kalen Ballage, pulled ASU within seven points, but so too did the second, a 16-yard reception by freshman N'Keal Harry that came after the Sun Devils allowed a three-play, 75-yard scoring drive that gave the Wildcats extra cushion.
After stitching together three straight touchdown drives on offense, though, a defense that will go down as one of the worst in the program's long history caved in once and for all.
In the second half alone, Arizona reeled off runs of 26, 52, 56, 63 and 68 yards to keep the game out of reach against a team that couldn't keep Wildcats' ball carriers within its reach.
"Samajie (Grant) was phenomenal, in just a few weeks at running back, in particular on some outside zones," Wildcats' head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Zach Green has never run that far in his life, he was great. And Brandon Dawkins was terrific, of course a guy like him gives a whole different dimension."
Though Wilkins completed 43-of-58 passes for a career-high 372 yards and senior wide receiver Frederick Gammage caught a career-high 12 passes for 116 yards and one touchdown, ASU's offensive output was completely overshadowed by an Arizona team that hadn't scored more than 28 points in a game since a mid-September win over Hawaii.
In fact, the only reason Wilkins and Gammage were in a position to net career-highs is because ASU's offense was on the field for 42 more plays than the Wildcats' unit.
"It's crazy," Gammage said. "I don't even know what I'm thinking. I'm just so focused on winning the game, and I have to give hats off to them. They did a great job and came out and executed their game plan."
Arizona needed just 56 offensive plays to rack up 56 points on a night where none of its eight touchdown drives lasted more than six plays. Despite covering at least 63 yards on all but one scoring drive, five of Arizona's eight scoring series last three plays or fewer.
"We've never given up that many yards," Graham said. "We played against Washington last week, one of the best teams probably in the country, and didn't do that. We have to give them credit. They ran hard, they didn't run anything they hadn't ran, it was just very disappointing. Obviously, it's my responsibility, and that's absolutely unacceptable."
In a season marred by catastrophic defensive breakdowns that will keep ASU's 2016 box scores in opponents record books for years to come, the Sun Devils' final effort was one that will live on longer than any of its coaches or players care to know.
"Through these situations, it's easy for a team to come apart," Wilkins said. "Obviously we're on a losing streak, so it's easy for a team to fall apart, not be pros, not be teammates, and start pointing fingers. It'll show a lot about our character. Just going out there and staying united."null