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ASU Football: Sun Devil defense executes in Territorial Cup

Balled out

Andrew Palla/House of Sparky

The 93rd Territorial Cup had its ups and downs throughout, but the Sun Devils were able to walk away with the 24-14 win.

Arizona State (7-5, 4-5) secured themselves a date to go bowling after the upset victory over then No. 6 Oregon last week. Against Arizona (4-8, 2-7 Pac-12), they were playing heartbreakers once more as the team kept the Territorial Cup in the desert for another 365 days.

During rivalry week, fans are intrigued to see their most hated opponents go toe-to-toe with their adversaries. In most cases, the games have several run high with emotion. In the case of the Duel in the Desert, the game was choppy, but never too crazy. That was addressed.

“A lot of emotions come out and you see a lot of bad football, and it takes away from the game,” head coach Herm Edwards said postgame. “That’s what people put on television, and they show that rather than the game, the fights and all the pushing and shoving.”

Edwards himself, is never a fan of rivalry week, as teams tend to forget the bigger picture and guys want to talk and fight because of the school history.

Against the Wildcats, there were definitely some not so friendly words spoken, but Edwards was pleased with the way his group stayed poised.

“I always hate this last week of college football because the rivalry games begin and all the emotions come out, and sometimes before the game, it’s a mess,” Edwards said. “I don’t like that. The game is too precious for that to be the headline. It just demoralizes the game. It just makes the game look bad. I’m glad we stayed away from that on both parts and that was a good thing.”

The Sun Devils were able to stay focused and energized on both sides of the ball as they faced an Arizona team that was playing two quarterbacks, and playing under a new defensive coordinator.

Entering the week, ASU d-coordinator Danny Gonzales had prepared his defense to see the likes of both senior quarterback Khalil Tate and true freshman Grant Gunnell. It was Tate who played the entire game in his final Territorial Cup.

“They aren’t going to a bowl game, so that’s his last game. Everything he has done for that program, last year he was the leading candidate to be the Heisman Trophy winner coming into the season,” Gonzales said. “It goes to show you how skilled and talented he is, and my guess was that they would let him play the whole game.”

Gonzales prepared the defense to stop the run, and they were able to do that from the first snap. Arizona junior running back J.J. Taylor had averaged 65 yards per game, but in Saturday’s matchup, the defense was able to shut Taylor down and force Tate to make plays.

“The main thing was just stopping the run,” said senior cornerback Kobe Williams. “We knew they would come in here and try to run the ball a lot. We didn’t know who would start, we just knew we wanted whoever was there to throw the ball and try to beat us in the passing game.”

Junior tillman Evan Fields led the team with 10 total tackles, and most of the plays occurred in the running game. He added onto what Williams described.

“We worked on that all week in practice,” Fields said. “I feel like as a defense, we played fast and we just ran and reacted, and when you do that it’s hard to run the ball. Everybody was just flying around.”

Tate found a way to keep plays alive with his feet, but it was his arm that hurt the Wildcats. The secondary was able to make plays as Tate struggled to connect on anything deep all night.

He threw for 228 passing yards and two touchdowns, but it was his three interceptions that proved to be costly.

The three miscues not only kept the Sun Devils in the game, but allowed them to take the matter into their own hands and build on their lead.

At the time of Tate’s first interception, the Sun Devil offense had 102 total yards of offense and three points. Arizona was leading 7-3 with under five minutes to go in the first half.

The other two followed suit, and all of the plays were on throws where his receivers weren't on the same page. Not only did it look poor on the senior quarterback, but the Sun Devil defense had the perfect coverage.

“On Merlin’s (Robertson) interception, we were in zone coverage,” Gonzales said. “They thought we were in man so they ran the tailback on an angle route. If they run a flat route, they have us out leveraged and we were in zone, but they ran it right in because they did a good job of disguising the look and they threw it right to him and Merlin intercepted it.”

Gonzales has made it a point all year that he wants more interceptions, and in the final game of the regular season, he got his wish.

“Three interceptions, that’s what I kind of anticipated,” Gonzales said.

Now, the Sun Devils await their bowl location and opponent as they look to reach the eight-win mark for the first time 2015. That year, ASU finished 10-3 and won the Sun Bowl over Duke.