I'm not going to lie. This loss hurts. In fact, it really stings. I can't remember a time in this Territorial Cup battle where I've been more upset, angry, and yes, disappointed.
After a 16 day layoff, Arizona's high-scoring, spread offense looked like they hadn't played together in 16 weeks.
Arizona somehow managed to gain 316 yards of total offense but in watching the game, it felt like nothing near that. Quarterback Willie Tuitama threw the ball 52 times, but only 28 were caught. Nearly 28 others were dropped. Well, not exactly, but the official drop count is somewhere between 12 and 20 depending on who you ask.
Midway through the second quarter I made the comment that Arizona's just not making any plays. A few minutes later Arizona cornerback Antoine Cason dropped an easy interception in the end zone that negated a Sun Devil touchdown but allowed them to then kick a field goal. My, what I'd do to have those three points back now, considering the Wildcats lost 20-17.
All game, Arizona was off. They looked off in their play calling, their route running, their execution, their timing and their pass catching. For some reason, Arizona abandoned the short game although it was defending the short game that plagued Arizona State in their 44-24 loss to USC last week. Arizona rushed the ball a mere 19 times and threw the ball beyond 15 yards at least that many times. For an Arizona State team that's average at best in tackling in open space, the Wildcats never found a scheme that would exploit that weakness.
That was disappointing.
Of course, when the Wildcats did throw short, many of the passes were dropped so you can't really blame the coaches for not wanting to return to those types of plays.
All blame is not with the receivers though as Tuitama was pressured enough in the pocket that his accuracy was anything but accurate. He never looked comfortable last night and seemed to have no sense of what was happening on his blind side as he routinely seemed to be surprised when the pressure finally reached him from behind. This resulted in several sacks that could have been avoided by either throwing the ball away or stepping up and sliding out.
While Arizona's execution is partly to blame, Arizona State's defensive pressure and multiple looks should get a majority of the credit.
This was a hard fought, defensive battle in every sense. Both defenses brought their "A" games and it showed. Arizona State completely disrupted Arizona's spread attack while the Wildcats made the Sun Devils work for every yard.
The difference in the game is Arizona State made the big plays while Arizona made a lot of good plays, but no great plays.
To be fair, one big play that the Sun Devils did fail to execute was on a play-action pass that left wide out Kyle Williams streaking open down the center of the field. Somehow, Williams dropped a perfectly thrown pass from Rudy Carpenter that should have resulted in a touchdown. Outside of that, Arizona State seemed to make the great catch at the right time. The first big catch came with 10 minutes to play in the second quarter when a scrambling Carpenter threw a shovel pass from the 3-yard line to the back of the end zone where Tyrice Thompson out jumped two Wildcat defenders to haul in the touchdown pass. The second big pass-catch came with about five minutes to play in the first half when Chris McGaha somehow reeled in a Carpenter bomb at the 1-yard line with nothing more than his fingertips. The third big catch and the one that pretty much sealed the victory came late in the fourth quarter when, on another broken play, Carpenter rolled out and found a wide open Michael Jones roaming free in the end zone. That touchdown put the Sun Devils up 20-10 with 4:27 to go.
The game appeared over, but it wasn't.
Arizona returned the ensuing kickoff to the Sun Devils 45-yard line. Seven plays later they found themselves in a Fourth-and-Goal at the 2-yard line. Down two scores, the Wildcats opted to risk the game and go for the touchdown instead of taking the sure points and making it a one score game with 2:06 on the clock and two timeouts remaining.
Arizona failed to score.
In a defensive game where both offenses did a little more than nothing for 57 plus minutes, odds were Arizona was going to get the ball back with a short field with about a minute to play and guess what, they did. However, due to the fact that they didn't settle for the field goal, Arizona now still needed to score 10 points.
Surprise, surprise. Arizona stopped the Sun Devils and regained possession at the Arizona State 33-yard line with 1:11 on the clock. 45 seconds later they were in the end zone and instead of celebrating an incredible come from behind score to send the game into overtime, they found themselves lining up for a desperation onside kick.
The Sun Devils recovered the short squib kick and that was the ball game.
With the victory, Arizona State looks to be heading to either the Fiesta Bowl or the Holiday Bowl. Both of which are prominent bowls deserving of a 10-2 team that tied USC for the Pac-10 crown (USC goes to the Rose Bowl because of the head-to-head victory over ASU). Arizona, on the other hand, will spend the holiday bowl season at home for the ninth straight season. No extra practice sessions, no bowl game, nothing.
For a group of Arizona seniors who have endured many things in their four years, quite honestly they deserve more. These young men have battled through adversity since day one and have helped build this program back to respectability.
Unfortunately, that was as far as they could take the team.
Now, it's time for a new crop of Wildcats to step into the leadership role and elevate the program further. To say that Arizona could've been an eight or even nine win team this season is not to over exaggerate. In the games they won, they won easily, usually jumping out to huge leads that made it impossible for opponents to fully comeback. In the games they lost, only three, BYU, California and Oregon State, were literally un-winnable thanks to huge first quarter deficits. Of the others, New Mexico, USC, Stanford, and Arizona State, the combined final deficit for all four games was 13 points.
Can Arizona improve by 13, or better, 14, points next season?
One would think so with 10 starters on offense returning and almost nearly all others on the depth chart back as well.
It's a two-way street though in that almost all of Arizona's key starters on defense will be lost to graduation in December or May.
Arizona will have talent on both sides of the ball in 2008 but the scales will definitely favor the offense. While that sounds good, they'll be going into battle against what should be an even better Pac-10 with a much younger and overall inexperienced defense. While Arizona should consistently score more points, you have to wonder if the younger defense will make the same mistakes on the road that this season's younger offense made.
The Arizona State loss was just one example of Arizona's youthful offense collapsing on the road this season. In road games against BYU, California and Oregon State, the offense struggled then as much as they did last night. Next season I expect them to be much more in sync with an entire off season to work on the timing that's necessary in a spread offense. How well and how quickly the new defense develops is the mystery though.
Against the Sun Devils, Arizona's veteran defense made two crucial goal line stands that kept Arizona State out of the end zone and Arizona in the game. Can next year's version do the same? Or, will Arizona need to score 45 points every game in order to win?
If the defense does emerge they, along with the offense and special teams, will make a great team that will undoubtedly reach their first bowl game since 1998? But if they don't, well, it's hard to say then.
The most disappointing thing in this whole situation though is we now have almost nine months to wait before we'll really know.