It was a storybook Saturday in Tempe as the Arizona State Sun Devils secured both an opportunity to host the Pac-12 Championship and the Territorial Cup with a 58-21 victory over the Arizona Wildcats.
But this dominant chapter of ASU's journey to the Rose Bowl wasn't written by the usual suspects. In fact, the first names out of head coach Todd Graham's mouth were those of two players who were thrust into unanticipated roles.
"I'm really proud of D.J. [Foster] and De'Marieya Nelson," said Graham. "Offense went out there and scored 58 points. What can you say? That's the most ever since Territorial Cup games in the 1950s."
Actually, that total was the second largest output by the Sun Devils in the history of the rivalry. And they did it all without the man who leads Arizona State in both touches and touchdowns.
Converting from slot machine to feature back in Marion Grice's absence (lower leg injury), Foster earned the Bob Moran Territorial Cup MVP award with his 124-yard, two-touchdown performance on the ground. The rushing yards were more than the versatile Foster had compiled in his previous seven games combined.
Once Foster's backup Deantre Lewis limped off early in the first quarter, Nelson, a tight end by trade, found a new niche. Operating as Arizona State's power back, Nelson received his first carries since Week 1, converting two of his eight attempts into one-yard touchdowns.
But the Sun Devil Swiss Army knife didn't stop there. Nelson also forced and recovered his own fumble on special teams late in the third quarter to provide a superfluous nail in the coffin for Arizona State.
Afterwards, Graham gushed about the tenacity of his team.
"We've got some special players," said the second-year head coach. "The core of our program is about relationships; it's about family. And what motivates us is competition."
Yet there was little "competition" to be found Saturday.
By midway through the second quarter, the Sun Devils had already built a commanding 27-0 lead. Following that surge, the Wildcats would never cut the deficit to less than 16 points. Arizona State then closed the game out with 21 unanswered.
But the real story behind the Sun Devils' dominance stemmed from what Graham called a "championship caliber defense."
Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Damarious Randall each intercepted a B.J. Denker pass while also holding Arizona's quarterback to an average of 5.8 yards on his 30 attempts. Randall's pick was particularly pivotal as he was able to bring it back 64 yards for a touchdown just as ASU fans were having flashes of another UCLA-esque, second-half comeback.
"Our secondary has played big-time all year long and doesn't get a lot of credit," said Graham. "Arizona ran that punch pattern earlier and when they went back to it, we changed what we were doing. Damarious read it perfectly."
Although Graham began the week by labeling Ka'Deem Carey the best running back in the nation, Arizona State certainly didn't seem intimated. In building their 13-0 first quarter lead, the Sun Devils limited Carey to 23 yards on his first six carries. And if it wasn't for a 28-yard scamper late in the second quarter, Carey would have ended the first half with 16 carries for 34 yards (2.1 yards per carry).
Carey did finish his day with 157 yards and a touchdown but the Wildcats were unable to utilize him as a clock-killer like they did in last Saturday's upset over Oregon. Despite compiling 45 less yards on the ground, the Sun Devils won the time of possession battle by over five minutes.
But the most noteworthy running back news of the day came in the form of a Grice update in Graham's postgame press conference. When asked if he expects his star ball carrier to be back for the conference championship, Graham gave a resounding "no" before calling the vague injury Grice suffered against UCLA "a three-week deal."
That leaves Foster, fresh off setting new career highs in rushing yards and touchdowns, as Arizona State's lead back. While the prospect of facing Stanford's No. 3 overall run defense may be daunting to most, Foster doesn't seem too anxious to stop playing his natural position.
"I felt at home," said the sophomore. "Getting my mindset out of the receiving stuff and [getting] myself into the playbook as a running back again...it felt comfortable to get back."
The Sun Devils (10-2) have now won seven straight and will host the Stanford Cardinal (10-2) at 5:45 MT next Saturday in the program's first ever Pac-12 Championship appearance. If that statement sounds surreal to you, don't be ashamed; Arizona State's hometown hero is just as stunned.
"It's unbelievable," said Foster. "We're anxious but we know we have got a lot of work still...We just have to understand what we have in front of us and how close we are to our goal."
- Kicker Zane Gonzalez set a new ASU record Saturday by making his 18th consecutive field goal, surpassing the mark previously held by Thomas Weber. Gonzalez finished his day with three total field goals (38 yards, 21 yards, 23 yards).
- With his first touchdown pass to Darwin Rogers, quarterback Taylor Kelly set the new school record with points responsible for in a season.
- Jaelen Strong made the most of his four receptions on the evening, finishing with 142 yards including a 61-yard touchdown. It was Strong's second-highest yardage total of the season behind his 12-reception, 168-yard performance against Stanford.
Please Sun Devil nation, describe to us your elation. Tell us in the comments what this Territorial Cup victory means to you. And what are your expectations for next week's Pac-12 Championship game?