Sometimes the best rivalry games are the ones with nothing on the line except pride.
Arizona State already etched itself into a bowl game, while Arizona looked to put a positive spin on a nightmarish season. This year’s Territorial Cup had no conference or postseason implications, allowing emotions to pile up and flow freely in a way that makes football fans and players go primal.
Even better, State-48 was treated to three quarters of great football. For the fifth year in a row, Arizona State (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) beat in-state rival Arizona (1-11, 1-8) 38-15 in Tempe.
The unsportsmanlike penalties flew on nearly each drive. There was an ejection, as well as a ceremonial stomping-of-the-logo. The rivalry-buzz lingered throughout the stadium. It was a nice distraction from the let downs of both teams, albeit on different scales.
Arizona's hottest club is the Territorial Cup.— House of Sparky (@HouseOfSparky) November 28, 2021
"This game had everything: a safety, a defensive touchdown, a flagrant unsportsmanlike penalty due to one player head-butting another player, oh and an ejection." pic.twitter.com/9EHZCUrHv6
What’s a good rivalry without pregame shenanigans?
The UArizona players shared the same thought, and decided to tear up patches of grass on the midfield Sparky logo. This story takes a bitter turn when you learn that longtime Sun Devil field-keeper Brian Johnson is retiring after 37 years in Tempe, with Saturday’s game being his last. The logo was his last piece of work.
“They do that to get themselves pumped up,” Jack Jones said after the game. “But that doesn’t win a football game.”
“At the end of the day the cup is right here,” captain Kyle Soelle added.
“Brian Johnson is a real one,” Chase Lucas muttered in agreement.
Field staff fixing divots now. pic.twitter.com/TJ08tx3SM7— Kevin Redfern (@KevinMRedfern13) November 27, 2021
What followed was a chippy game consisting of vulnerable moments for players on both teams when it came to discipline, and both schools suffered. Five unsportsmanlike conducts were accepted (more were called), a Wildcat player was ejected, and there were skirmishes between plays frequently.
“Emotional fouls, going into this game we only had seven,” Herm Edwards said. “And we got a couple tonight, but in this game, if you’re a head coach, you chalk off three before the game starts. Cause it’s gonna happen. You tell them all week ‘don’t do it,’ at halftime ‘don’t do it,’ and then Jack (Jones) doesn’t only do it, I mean he really does it.”
More on that in a bit, back to football.
From the kickoff, it was apparent that this was not going to be a 70-7 slaughter. College football rarely is. Arizona pulled out all the tricks to take its first two drives for 77 and 67 yards, respectively, but only netted two field goals. Down three starters and a backup (Fields/Robertson/Butler/Markham), the ASU defense bent, but did not break.
Meanwhile, the Sun Devils responded with a 75 yard-drive of its own, concluding with a 14-yard touchdown connection from Jayden Daniels (10-14 / 86 yards / two TDs) to Ricky Pearsall (five catches / 52 yards / two TD). Coming into this game, Daniels had one touchdown pass in November 2021. He doubled that total after finding Pearsall again later for their second combined touchdown of the afternoon.
Up 7-6, ASU punted after a quick three-and-out. On the third play of the Wildcat drive, Tyler Johnson and Jack Jones found themselves in the backfield in hot pursuit of UA quarterback Will Plummer. Jones sacked Plummer, forcing a fumble that Johnson recovered on the Wildcat one yard-line. Rachaad White (21 carries / 98 yards / one TD) punched in the score to extend the Sun Devil lead to 14-6.
While his passing prowess is under a critical lens, Daniels ability to extend plays with his legs is actually improving. Up 14-9 with the ball at midfield, Jayden took off on a broken play. The lanky quarterback swerved in-and-out of Wildcat defenders, making his usual route towards the sidelines. As he began to slow up, Pearsall and White sprung blocks, and Daniels followed the lead all the way to the end zone.
Daniels finished as the game’s second-leading rusher with 86 yards rushing on 10 carries and the touchdown.
The aforementioned Jack Jones unsportsmanlike conduct call could not have meant less to ASU.
“It was the turning point of the game,” Edwards said.
Edwards is not referencing the penalty itself, that response by Jones was just pure emotion.
Already up 31-15, the Wildcats threatened. Plummer was on the brink of the red zone for the fourth time of the day, and an Arizona touchdown would make it a ballgame again. On first down from the ASU 22 yard-line, Jones intercepted Plummer and took the return 87 yards to the house.
Then he chucked the football halfway up the student section. The flags followed.
“That was the first pick-six of my career,” Jones said with a smile. “I was thinking about (throwing a ball into the stands) forever...and that was my only opportunity, it was in my head so I just launched it.”
Jones was awarded the Bob Moran Territorial Cup MVP award after the game.
This was one of many moments that the players joked about in the postgame press-conference. There were laughs, jokes, and camaraderie from Arizona locals Chase Lucas, Tyler Johnson, and the Soelle brothers. Jones shared his graces. It was a joyful moment, one that is worth savoring after a year of trivial disappointments. Over all, the bitterness towards the Wildcats shined brightest.
“The [Territorial Cup] is right here, little brothers got beat on, they can now take a nice little two-and-a-half hour drive down to the little toilet bowl down there [in Tucson].”
After the game, players and coach Herm Edwards confirmed that ASU athletic director Ray Anderson and University President Michael Crow informed Edwards and the team that Edwards will remain the team’s head coach moving forward.
Some questionable mid-season losses, combined with an NCAA investigation, cast a shadow of doubt on Edwards and his future in Tempe. As of Saturday, those rumors can be put to rest.
“I had no plans of leaving,” 67-year-old Edwards said. “I told [sports information director Mark Brand] a long time ago when I took this job that there’s an elevator you go up behind the back stairs [of the media center]. The day that I don’t have the energy to walk up those stairs, I’m gonna walk back down, and then I’m done. I’ll walk again tonight. I’m the coach. I’m gonna be the coach. Starting Monday, I’m gonna sit in the film room starting at eight o’clock, and [work on] this thing called the [transfer portal].”
ASU currently ranks last in the conference in projected recruiting for the class of 2022. So far, only five players are committed.