(Photo: Alli Cline/WCSN)
TUCSON, ARIZ. – The Arizona State Sun Devils gained more yards than the Arizona Wildcats, had twice as many first downs and managed to force two turnovers, but youthful mistakes and big plays for the home team led to a 42-35 season-ending loss for ASU.
In many ways, it was the same problems that plagued the Sun Devils early in the year that ended up proving costly and led to the defeat. After beginning the year with multiple freshman starters on defense, ASU was forced to rely on that youth once again in the Territorial Cup and once again the Sun Devils gave up big plays.
“I hate to come in here and say we beat ourselves, but we really did,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “That’s one where you scratch your head and say ‘How in the world did we lose that game?'”
With Jordan Simone out for the game due to injury, Laiu Moeakiola on crutches in the second half and Jaxon Hood still out for personal reasons, many of the young players that saw play time early in the year saw extended time once again. James Johnson, D.J. Calhoun, Armand Perry and Tashon Smallwood all played significant roles in the loss, but it wasn’t all on the young players.
Offensively, the Sun Devils missed on several opportunities to strike for big plays. On defense, Damarious Randall bit on a chance for an interception that resulted in a 69-yard touchdown for the Wildcats instead.
“We’ve got it matched up and everything, hit the quarterback right in the mouth and [Randall] just guessed short,” Graham said. “You can’t go underneath it like that. He missed the ball by about an inch and gave up a pass that he never should’ve given up for a touchdown.”
The Sun Devils recovered from that touchdown and entered the half tied with their in-state rivals, 21-21. The game-changer though, was an injury to Moeakiola that forced the team to adjust to the loss of a defensive leader by filling in with freshmen. First, the team filled with Calhoun, but a quick Arizona touchdown led to a change to Perry as a full-time nickel cornerback in the second half.
“When [Moeakiola] went out that hurt us,” Randall said. “He’s very, very good in run support so they took advantage of that. There were some miscommunications.”
The most blatant miscommunication in run support came when Nick Wilson extended Arizona’s lead to 14 with a 72-yard touchdown run.
“When Laiu [Moeakiola] got hurt, that killed us,” Graham said. “We put D.J. [Calhoun] in there and we blew a coverage that resulted in a touchdown in the second half that really hurt us. He just came off his man. We were trying to play with a nickel back in our base defense, which was a challenge to make all the calls.”
And so the season went down as it began, with an up-and-down defense that struggled to put up the points expected of a talented a group. With a defense of young players showing potential, but also struggling to avoid big mistakes. And with lulls of poor play to begin the second half that allowed opposition to gain momentum.
While the decision to supplant Taylor Kelly with Mike Bercovici will be the one under the microscope, it was 42 points for the Arizona offense that proved to be the difference, as it was just too much for the Sun Devils offense to overcome albeit at least seven of Arizona’s points were directly the fault of ASU’s offense.
“It sucks. It should never be this way” Bercovici said. We’ve practiced like champions since January and we’ve prepared for these types of situations…At the end of the day, we don’t lose to these guys.”
ASU will find out its final destination of the season in the coming weeks, but it won’t be the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl or any bowl near the ones that were on the table as a possibility on Friday night.