The Sun Devils entered the fourth quarter down 40-21 on Saturday, they had just played one of their worst quarters of the season. The Wildcats outscored ASU 18-7 in the third quarter, outplayed them in all three phases, everything looked as if the Territorial Cup was headed back to Tucson.
Arizona State found themselves in a position they had most of the season, in a spot to attempt a late-game comeback. Most of these comebacks came up short, opportunities left on the field, heads pointed down with thoughts of what could’ve been different.
In Arizona Stadium, Arizona State (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12) didn’t leave those opportunities on the field, their heads aimed toward the sky because they won. A victory everyone counted out, a loss plenty already tallied to the Sun Devils’ record. Arizona’s (6-6, 4-5) kicker Josh Pollack missed his 45-yard kick with 11 seconds left in the game, that locked ASU’s 41-40 win to complete the 19-point comeback.
“Played a really tough game, but as we’ve said all year, we’ve lost some of those close games, We didn’t lose this one,” redshirt senior quarterback Manny Wilkins said. “So much adversity this whole game, we just stayed poised, stayed trusted to the game plan. That’s why we finished with one more point than they did.”
The fourth quarter began with a stalled Arizona State drive, head coach Herm Edwards decided to send out kicker Brandon Ruiz from Arizona’s nine-yard line. Fans on social media questioned the decision to send out the field goal unit down 19 points.
Why did he do it? Trust. Edwards trusted his defense, the same defense that had allowed 40 points and 446 yards through three quarters, to go get the ball back. That trust factors goes both ways between coach and players as Edwards discussed after the game.
“The thing that I’m most proud of is that I’ve earned their trust as a coach. They know to keep battling, that’s what you do, that’s what makes football so great,” he said.
The defense forced an Arizona punt the next drive. Wilkins and company then marched down 80 yards, topped off by a 11-yard touchdown by Wilkins himself to close the gap to 10. Wilkins then found redshirt junior tight end Tommy Hudson for the two-point conversation to make it 40-32 with 6:36 left in the game.
The trusted defense kept making plays, blown assignments, being outplayed, it all disappeared in the fourth quarter. Instead of being the blamed for the loss, players started to become the heroes. Freshman safety Aashari Crosswell was one of them.
Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate was flushed out to his right on the ensuing third down after the Wilkins touchdown. Tate had play a solid game to that point, however he made his first mistake of the game. He forced a throw on the third down play, the ball ended in Crosswell’s hands for an interception.
“He doesn’t understand how special big of a play he just made in a Territorial Cup in a situation that we were in,” said Wilkins of Crosswell. “As a 17, 18-year old kid he just doesn’t understand, 30 years down the road, people are going to remember him for getting a game-winning interception to let us go score.”
ASU went three-and-out on the drive that followed the interception, but Crosswell’s return positioned the Sun Devils for a 39-yard field goal from Ruiz to cut the lead to five.
Edwards had trusted his defense, and Wilkins expressed how he did as well. After the field goal he had a message for his teammates on the defensive end.
“After the last time we scored, not the last one but the other one we scored on (Ruiz field goal to make it 40-35), I went immediately to the defense and I looked everyone of them in their eyes, and they saw my look and I said ‘go get me the ball,’” Wilkins said.
The Sun Devil defense didn’t exactly force a turnover on Arizona’s next possession, nevertheless they did get the ball back for Wilkins. Tate and running back J.J. Taylor fumbled the handoff exchange and redshirt freshman linebacker Tyler Johnson pounced on the loose ball.
Wilkins got the ball back, he handed it off to sophomore running back Eno Benjamin on the first play after the turnover. Benjamin scampered from 22 yards out for his third score of the game, giving the Sun Devils their first lead of the game.
Offensive coordinator Rob Likens detailed after the game how Wilkins had the a run-pass option on the game-winning play. Wilkins had two routes designed to go to had Arizona shown a one-safety look on defense, they didn’t, they showed double high safeties. Trusted to make the correct decision, Wilkins opted for run, and his correct decision finished the comeback.
With 3:03 left in the game, the Wildcats still had a shot at winning it on Saturday. Tate launched a ball toward the end after Arizona had crossed midfield, the pass aimed for wide receiver Stanley Berryhill had a possibility of being a touchdown. The Arizona faithful in Tucson erupted because they believed Berryhill had caught the touchdown to regain the lead, he didn’t because cornerback Kobe Williams knocked it away.
The quiet, humble cornerback described by defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales as the most consistent defensive back on the roster this season had silenced everyone in enemy territory. The Wildcats went conservative with a rush to Taylor for four yards the next play to make the field goal attempt shorter for Pollack. It didn’t matter as Pollack pushed it wide right.
Gonzales said after the game the team has a slogan:
“The team that plays the hardest, the longest wins.”
On Saturday, that team was the Arizona State Sun Devils. All the crucial plays, Williams’ pass breakup, Crosswell’s interception, Johnson’s fumble recovery, Wilkins and Benjamin’s touchdown runs, they’re all pages in a chapter. The 92nd chapter of the Territorial Cup history book to be exact, a chapter that’ll be talked about by Sun Devil fans for generations to come.