TEMPE — Part of the $270 million Arizona State spent to beautify its football plant is a 14-foot by 20-foot jumbo TV screen a few yards from the Sun Devil Stadium visitor’s locker room.
It’s part of the excess of college football, and it works so artfully that Saturday evening you could almost hear the audio through the glass and all the way to Arizona’s locker room.
After UA coach Rich Rodriguez convulsed his way through a brief interview session in which he gave new meaning to the term The Angry Man, Arizona State coach Todd Graham appeared on the big screen.
“I’m sitting here looking at this cup and I’ve kissed it about five times already,” he said. “I’m proud of Sun Devil Nation, man, they were awesome tonight. What a great atmosphere. Got that Cup back where it belongs.”
Wasn’t it Graham who was said to be fired Saturday or Sunday or before the clock struck midnight?
Isn’t it RichRod who is a semifinalist for college football’s coach of the year?
Oh, how the Territorial Cup can draw a man’s blood.
“We’ll be mad for a couple of days,” said RichRod after his team slipped, fell and was ultimately humbled, 42-30. “Losing the Territorial Cup is something that makes us angry.”
For the first 29 minutes Saturday, the Territorial Cup was so flavorless it could’ve been a Missouri-Kansas game. Arizona led 24-14. Blah, blah, blah. The large crowd was almost comatose. I started doodling in the press box, trying to figure out how much Graham’s $12 million buyout came to per week.
I debated if I should vote for RichRod or Washington State’s Mike Leach as Pac-12 coach of the year.
Arizona had possession at its 45 with exactly a minute — and all of its timeouts — remaining. In Coaching 101, 202 and 303, it’s Time to Put The Other Team Away. It was time to finish the Sun Devils and load the Territorial Cup back onto the bus to Tucson.
The Sun Devils, who began the game with a yielding body language, had not put up much of a fight. They looked a lot like Oregon State without the rain.
Instead, RichRod went soft and killed not the Sun Devils but the clock, and, unwittingly, his own team.
After a two-yard run by J.J. Taylor, the clock continued to tick. Arizona made no move to get into field-goal range. Then Taylor darted eight yards, into Sun Devil territory, and RichRod quickly called a timeout with 14 seconds remaining.
Taylor ran again, for two yards, and RichRod called another timeout. Three seconds remained. He ordered quarterback Khalil Tate to throw a Hail Mary.
Tate, who had apparently injured his non-throwing shoulder earlier in the half, was pummeled as he delivered the long pass. He slowly got to his feet, stooped over and put his hands to his knees, then walked slowly alongside graduate assistant coach B.J. Denker to the locker room.
That was the last time Arizona had a pulse in the 2017 Territorial Cup.
“In this game, it’s the team that physically whips the other team,” Graham said. “I knew we hobbled (Tate), hit him pretty good, in the first half.”
As it turned out, given RichRod’s conservative approach, the most appropriate call in his playbook would’ve been to take a knee and ensure Tate’s availability for the final 30 minutes.
Without a healthy and effective Tate, Arizona became the team that lost to Houston and Utah in September. The Wildcats gained just 37 yards in the third quarter while the Sun Devils scored three touchdowns and bolted to a 35-24 lead.
In RichRod’s uncomfortable media session, he minimized Tate’s injury and instead cited Arizona’s chronic punting woes.
“I don’t want to punt,” he said. “Lord knows what happens when we punt.”
And Lord knows what happens when you try to kill the clock and then change your mind.
So the team that attracted the nation’s attention in October finished the regular season by giving up 90 points in losses at Oregon and ASU. It was almost predictable. The Wildcats went as far as Tate would take them.
On Saturday, he could only take them through 30 minutes.
Years from now, when bruised feelings subside, UA followers will look at the 2017 season and speak of the 4-0 October and not the 1-3 November. They’ll remember Tate’s remarkable rise to prominence, not the way the Wildcats were unable to make the best of it.
College football is such a fickle game.
A few minutes after noon on Saturday, ASU president Michael Crow pulled into the Fulton Center parking garage and was directed to the first parking spot in the first row. He wore a maroon and gold golf shirt with a kitschy pitchfork logo snug against his heart.
He looked to be in a hurry; rushing off, alone, wearing the expression of a man about to carry the weight of paying $12 million to fire a football coach.
Six hours later, Crow all but carried the Territorial Cup home to bed.