TUCSON, Ariz. — It wasn’t how the story was supposed to end.
The Arizona State Sun Devils’ 2016 season has come to an abrupt conclusion following a 56-35 shellacking at the hands of their rival, the Arizona Wildcats, in the 91st Territorial Cup game Friday night at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz.
The Sun Devils (5-7, 2-7 Pac-12) closed the year on a disheartening six-game losing streak, the longest such run of head coach Todd Graham’s coaching career. The spell culminated in the worst defensive showing of his tenure in front of 50,197 fans.
“You can’t play that bad and make up any excuses,” Graham said after the loss. “We have no excuses.”
Graham and Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez are known for their innovation on opposite sides of the ball; Graham for defense and Rodriguez for offense. On Friday, it was Rodriguez and his running game which proved superior, as ASU conceded 588 total yards, including 511 on the ground—a new Wildcats single-game record for rushing yards gained, and a Sun Devils single-game record for rushing yards allowed.
Arizona (3-9, 1-8) ran wild, producing three 100-yard rushers in quarterback Brandon Dawkins, and running backs Samajie Grant and Zach Green.
“We have to give (Arizona) credit,” Graham said. “They ran hard.”
There were early signs of the Sun Devils’ inability to stop the Wildcats’ rushing attack. On Arizona’s third play from scrimmage, Dawkins, the contest’s MVP, gashed the ASU defense for a 71-yard touchdown run to open scoring.
Following a 42-yard fumble return by Sun Devils linebacker Koron Crump to tie the game, Dawkins (12 carries, 183 yards, 2 TDs) again ran in for a score, giving the Wildcats a 14-7 lead they didn’t look back from.
A 64-yard catch by senior receiver Nate Phillips and a rushing score by Green stretched the Wildcats’ lead to 28-7 with 7:07 left to play in the first half.
The Sun Devils battled back, however. Just ahead of halftime, Manny Wilkins threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to senior wideout Tim White, making it 28-14. Following the intermission, ASU found the end zone on a 1-yard run by Kalen Ballage (seven carries, 13 yards, one TD) to make it 28-21 early in the third period.
“There was never a moment in the game where I felt we couldn’t come back and win,” ASU senior receiver Fred Gammage said. “I felt like we had the momentum and we started ticking a little bit.”
While the Sun Devils never felt completely out of it, the Wildcats ensured they were always in control, manufacturing several long runs (including rushes of 52, 56, 63, 68 and 71 yards) to repel ASU’s comeback efforts.
Said Graham of the Wildcats’ fury of explosive plays: “They had one big play after another.”
Arizona’s Grant (19 carries, 176 yards, three TDs) was at the forefront of the second-half demolition. The senior scored three times during the second half on carries of 9, 2, and 63 yards, respectively, with the latter serving as the final blow coming with 7:45 remaining in the game.
Touchdown catches from ASU receivers N’Keal Harry (nine catches, 51 yards, one TD) and Gammage (career-high 12 catches, 116 yards, one TD) weren’t enough to keep ASU competitive in the defeat.
For Graham and his Sun Devils, the result prevents ASU from achieving bowl eligibility, the first instance since the former Pittsburgh coach arrived to Tempe in 2012. Injuries plagued ASU throughout the season at an ominous rate, while communication amongst secondary members against the pass remained an unsolved puzzle.
Regardless, Graham said there’s no excuses to be made, noting it was his defense’s discipline which faltered Friday. He said he’s looking forward to correcting mistakes during the offseason.
“We obviously got some things to get straight,” Graham said. “We started off 5-1, and then to lose six straight, that’s a first for me. I’m pretty motivated to go to work and get things where they need to be.”
Whether or not Graham will have the opportunity to fix things remains to be seen. White and his veteran counterparts feel the players remaining on the roster will manage to rebound from a long season.
“The young guys are going to be back at it,” White said. “They’re going to eat and change it up.”