Manny Wilkins has been often maligned by ASU fans during his tenure. He was criticized for always coming up short, for not making the plays of other Pac-12 quarterbacks who were viewed as NFL-caliber players. Saturday was different.
In his final Territorial Cup his team was beat in every facet of the game against their arch rival for the first 45 minutes. The rushing attack was stifled, the offense and defensive lines were getting over-matched and the secondary played like inexperience freshmen in a hostile environment.
The offense was flat, the defense had no answer for Khalil Tate’s throwing or running ability.
Eno Benjamin was held to under 20 yards on the ground in the first half. The Wildcats’ defense was easily besting the normally reliable ASU offensive line and the frustration was mounting.
Facing a 19-point deficit few thought ASU would be able to keep it close, let alone steal the win. But when having an experienced player at quarterback can make a world of difference.
Wilkins will finish tied with Taylor Kelly for the highest career completion percentage in school history. He cut his interceptions from eight to four, and always kept the Sun Devils in position to win football games.
Those painful losses ASU suffered? Nobody was more hurt more hurt than Wilkins.
After tears of pain following Stanford, it was tears of joy at the podium in Tucson.
“We didn’t deviate from our gameplay and I knew if that we just chipped away slowly we’ll have an opportunity and we capitalized,” Wilkins said.
Despite the many ups and downs of Saturday’s game, Wilkins’ confidence was unwavering.
“After not the last time we scored (Ruiz field goal) I went to the defense and looked every one of them in their eyes and they saw my look and I said go get me the ball,” he said.
The celebration was electric as the ASU fans in Tucson erupted and the Sun Devil players mobbed the field waiting for the clock to reach four zeros.
Considering the obstacles that Wilkins overcame during his ASU career it looks even more impressive. Four different offensive coordinators, three seasons as the starting quarterback with lots of criticism.
ASU Twitter was lambasting him earlier in the game when he looked like the only Sun Devil who bothered to show up in the first 45 minutes.
His head coach never wavered in his faith for his redshirt senior quarterback. His offensive coordinator said that the best part of working with Wilkins was knowing he gained his trust as a man.
He took it all with a grain of salt, while preaching patience and staying positive with a bigger goal in his head.
In the realm of any good comeback, you need some help from your opponent.
Arizona went very conservative in their play calling and committed two huge turnovers putting the Sun Devils in phenomenal field position.
Freshman safety Aashari Crosswell snatched a Tate pass and set up ASU for a field goal. Freshman linebacker Tyler Johnson picked up a botched handoff, then Benjamin unleashed his biggest run of the game putting Arizona State up for good.
After easily gashing the Sun Devil defense with the run pass option, the Arizona offense completely abandoned Tate’s playmaking ability.
They were more than willing to hope that sophomore star running back J.J. Taylor would be able to run the clock out. The ASU defense was happy to wrap up all predictable play calling.
Arizona’s kicker graduate senior Josh Pollack missed from 45 yards after easily connecting on four earlier field goals. It sailed wide right and the Sun Devil bench mobbed the field with elation.
The Sun Devils made the 92nd edition of the Territorial Cup one of the most memorable in the lore of the 48th state. Broke the home team’s six-game winning streak in the matchup, and cemented the legacy of Manny Wilkins, Jr.
Not a bad day’s work for a team projected to finish dead last in the Pac-12 South.