Khalil Tate had completed 10 of 11 passes, the Wildcats’ defense looked surprisingly stout, and the UA appeared well on its way to keeping the Territorial Cup in Tucson.
But the Sun Devils would outscore the Wildcats 28-6 in the final two quarters to win 42-30 in Tempe.
Unpredictable things happen in rivalry games and that was certainly the case in UA’s second-half meltdown.
Here is how it went down
The meltdown actually started with one minute left in the first half.
Up 24-14 and near midfield with multiple timeouts, Arizona inexplicably did not not make much of an effort to add to its lead.
Instead, the Wildcats ran the ball three times, let the clock wind down, then had Tate fire a Hail Mary to the corner of the end zone which predictably fell incomplete.
Even worse: Tate took a big hit on the play.
Arizona told the Pac-12 Network that Tate was “fine” but Brandon Dawkins relieved Tate to start the third quarter anyway, and the Wildcats immediately went three-and-out.
The ensuing punt from Jake Glatting was blocked, ASU took over at the UA 5-yard line, and Kalen Ballage plunged for a short TD to make it 24-21.
Dawkins was intercepted on UA’s next drive, and ASU would score shortly after, thanks to a ridiculous catch by N’Keal Harry to take a 28-24 lead.
Then, after a few warmup tosses, Tate returned but was clearly ailing. He didn’t get much going, and ASU scored yet again on its next drive to make it 35-24.
Dawkins would replace Tate again, and eventually broke free for a 50-yard touchdown on a fake reverse to make it 35-30 with 13:04 left in the fourth (the two-point conversion attempt was no good).
Arizona had some life and moments later it had the lead. Or at least should have.
Shun Brown returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown, appearing to put Arizona on top, but it got called back after an iffy (at best) block in the back penalty on Shawn Poindexter.
Arizona would start near its own end zone instead and nearly got tagged with a safety before a 36-yard punt.
That set up a short TD drive for ASU, capped by another insane grab by Harry to make it 42-30 with 4:51 left in the fourth.
Sean Poindexter had an acrobatic catch for 48 yards to give UA some hope, but Arizona’s drive stalled after a goal line stand by the Sun Devils.
Demario Richard would bust out for 63 yards on ASU’s next play, mercifully ending a wild Saturday in Tempe.
It is fair to wonder how things would have been different if Rich Rodriguez did not get conservative at the end of the first half.
What if Tate doesn’t take that hit on the Hail Mary? What if, instead of letting the clock wind down, Arizona scores before the end of the half and takes a 31-14 or 27-14 lead at halftime with a healthy Tate?
A very different ballgame, to be sure.
Instead, Arizona finishes the regular season 7-5 (5-4 in the Pac-12) and will likely head to the Las Vegas Bowl.
ASU finishes 7-5 (6-3 in the Pac-12) and is likely headed for the Sun Bowl — and it has the Territorial Cup to boot.
A promising first half was wasted
Arizona’s defense had been scuffling entering Saturday’s game, but you wouldn’t have known it from the way it started.
Arizona held ASU to 167 yards in the first half, including just 35 yards on the ground.
The Wildcats forced two three-and-outs on ASU’s first two drives, while their offense had two methodical touchdown drives, leaning mostly on Tate’s arm. The sophomore completed his first six passes for 62 yards. Green and Tate each had 1-yard touchdown runs to put UA up 14-0 in the first quarter.
ASU’s offense finally got going, and Manny Wilkins would find Kyle Williams over the middle for an 18-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-11.
Arizona would respond with a 24-yard field goal by Josh Pollack, then Wilkins continued his success through the air, leading a nine-play, 75-yard drive capped by a short touchdown run by Ballage to make it 17-14 with 5:45 left in the half.
But Tate hit Tyrell Johnson deep down the field for 42 yards, then J.J. Taylor had a filthy cutback TD run from 15 yards out to push UA’s lead to 24-14 with 3:43 left.
Thanks to sacks by Colin Schooler and Parker Zellers, UA would get the ball back with roughly two minutes left.
That’s when the wheels fell off.
Arizona went conservative and ran three times before punting back to ASU.
Lorenzo Burns would pick off an errant throw by Wilkins and UA would start at its own 45 with a minute left, getting yet another chance to put points on the board and bury the Sun Devils heading into the locker room.
But Arizona decided to played it safe — or so it thought — by settling for a Hail Mary.