Nine months ago, the senior trio of Mike Bercovici, D.J. Foster, and Jordan Simone penned an open letter to Sun Devil Nation. Included was a promise to work harder than ever, both on the field and in the classroom, and to compete for a National Championship. But there was one last note, tucked away at the bottom of the declaration, that appeared to carry more weight than any of the other sentences above it:
"The Territorial Cup will will return to Tempe this year"
Return it did on Saturday, thanks to a tremendous and inspiring performance from this cast of seniors. Bercovici and company led the way to a 52-37 win over the rival Arizona Wildcats (6-6, 3-6 Pac-12), getting the Arizona State Sun Devils (6-5, 4-4 Pac-12) a crucial sixth win in the process.
After a rough start for both offenses that saw either a punt or turnover on the game's first seven possessions, Arizona State drew first blood on a quick three-play, 66-yard drive. Faced with a 2nd & 10 deep in his own territory, Bercovici threw one of his best deep balls of the season on a 58-yard post route to senior Devin Lucien. Demario Richard capped the drive on the next play, rumbling eight yards into the end zone to give the Sun Devils an early 7-0 advantage.
"Mike (Norvell) and the staff did a great job of preparing and planning," head coach Todd Graham said when asked about hitting on the big pass play early on. "When we are physical running the football, you have got to load up the box to stop us. It had a lot to do with us controlling the line of scrimmage, pounding, and being physical."
Another three-and-out followed for the Wildcats, and they would once again be burned on the big play after giving the ball back. Just as he did less than two minutes prior, Lucien broke free in the secondary and received a perfect ball from Bercovici.
This time, he didn't need anyone to finish the job for him. The receiver cruised across the goal line, sending the sellout crowd at Sun Devil Stadium into a frenzy as their team now held a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter.
"What killed us the whole game, and particularly in the first half, were the big pass plays," said Wildcat head coach Rich Rodriguez. "They are allowed to do those. We just need to learn how to defend them better."
Low and behold, Arizona would work its way back into the game. But in an afternoon that would be known for its high-scoring offenses, an opportune defensive play did the trick for Rodriguez's team. Cornerback Cam Denson read a Bercovici screen pass like a book, easily jumping the route before taking the ball 21 yards the other way into the end zone.
The maroon and gold answered back on their next series, putting together their longest drive of the day to that point. The drive went 78 yards over 11 plays, ending on a Bercovici keeper from the one-yard line to make the score 21-7.
After a 22-yard field goal from Casey Skowron cut the deficit to 21-10, Arizona State's offense continued to roll. A pair of first downs got the team into plus field position before Bercovici found receiver Jalen Harvey for a 41-yard touchdown pass. The reception was Harvey's first ever as a Sun Devil.
Four minutes later, another efficient drive resulted in points for Graham's team. Zane Gonzalez connected on his only field goal attempt of the day, a 29-yarder as time expired in the first half to make the score 31-10.
For as good as the first half was, anyone that has watched this team all season long knew that a 21-point lead wasn't necessarily safe.
"We always tend to make it interesting," Graham said after the game.
The Wildcats slowly chipped away at the deficit, using a pair of field goals in the first 12 minutes of the third quarter to pull within 31-16. Their biggest play of the day, however, would come in the final minute of the quarter.
Backed up to their own 5-yard line, quarterback Brandon Dawkins hit Trey Griffey on a slant pattern that appeared to be enough for a first down. Griffey then managed to slip two would-be tacklers right at the sticks, then ran 85 more yards to the end zone while multiple Sun Devils were juked out of their shoes in pursuit.
The ensuing extra point made the score 31-23, and just like that the visitors from down south had made it a one-possession ball game.
As it turned out, that would be all Arizona State needed to wake up and put the game out of reach. The next drive was another 11-play masterpiece, concluding with a 1-yard touchdown run from Foster.
The biggest play on that possession, though, came on a tough 4th & 1 call at midfield. The team convinced Graham during a timeout to go for it, and Bercovici came up clutch with a 10-yard run on a read option keeper.
"Boy, I did not want to do that," said Graham. "That was a really difficult call that we went back and forth on about seven times in 20 seconds. But I knew it was going to work the whole time."
The Wildcats pulled within eight one more time on a touchdown pass from Dawkins with a little under seven minutes remaining, and the Wildcats actually got the ball back with four minutes left and a chance to go on a game-tying drive. Kareem Orr, however, had other plans.
On a day when ASU's seniors were the ones being honored, it was a true freshman that put the game on ice. Orr jumped a pass from Dawkins on 3rd & 6 and had nothing but daylight and green grass in front of him.
The pick-six made the score 45-30, and yet another interception return for a touchdown (this one by Lloyd Carrington) a minute later put the icing on the cake.
The maroon and gold finally seem to be hitting their stride, and while dreams of a title have long since been out of reach, this group of seniors at least got to make good on one of their promises today. The Territorial Cup is back in Tempe, and memories of this victory will remain long after the players that won this game are gone.
"The mission all summer long was to bring that Cup home," Bercovici said. "Well, the Cup is home and it is going to stay here a long time."