Monday Morning Sun Devil: ASU rout in Territorial Cup reflects state of program

Even with a limited amount of fans, Arizona State enjoyed its experience in Tucson against the Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. The Sun Devils rolled to a 70-7 victory and sent a statement about the state of their program. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Running up the score was not Arizona State’s intent during its 70-7 win over Arizona in the Territorial Cup.

Rather, the Sun Devils worked to ensure the statement win that had eluded them against USC and UCLA would not slip from their grasp Friday as they built an ever-increasing first-half lead that eventually reached 42-0. Coach Herm Edwards made sure of that.

“This was the hardest I’ve ever coached on the sideline since I’ve been here, when we had that lead,” Edwards said. “And it was really telling players, do not get comfortable. We have to finish the game, it’s not over. And I walked up and down that sideline, and if I saw guys smiling, they couldn’t even smile.

“I didn’t want ’em to smile. Don’t even go there. Just don’t do it. I saw that when we played (USC). I saw it in the fourth quarter. … And I wanted to make sure they understood, we cannot allow that to happen.”

Freshman kick returner D.J. Taylor started the Sun Devils off with a 100-yard-plus touchdown return on the opening kickoff. He echoed the sentiments of his coach when describing how he and his teammates wanted to put their stamp on the game early.

“I mean, first, I watched it probably like 100 times already, just looking at what I did, how I came back out, eyes took the kicker out and then just flied down their sideline,” Taylor said postgame. “I even watched their sideline like two, three times on the phone. Just looking at it, it just looked like I just took all their hope out.”

ESPN sideline reporter Stormy Buonantony overheard offensive coordinator Zak Hill imploring his charges not to let up and to continue to take the fight to the Wildcats even after the Sun Devils continually added to the enormous first-half lead.

Hill told reporters after the game that the reasoning for his emphasis was to establish a physical presence on offense that would knock Arizona off the ball.

“That was early in the game,” Hill said. “And we were trying to set a tone physically, and so that was a mindset we wanted the guys to have and get after them physically. And we knew if we could run the football, that was a big key to the win.”

ASU ran the ball 50 times for a total of 259 yards. Coupled with a defense that forced an astounding seven turnovers, the recipe was there for a dominant win, the likes of which had not been seen in the Territorial Cup rivalry in some time. The only game with a greater margin of victory was Arizona’s 67-0 triumph in 1946.

Edwards hire pays off

As Edwards and Hill mentioned, the big keys for ASU after stacking touchdowns early were remaining focused and continuing to play physical and assignment-sound football.

That they did, especially on defense, where the only blemish was a late first-half touchdown surrendered to Arizona running back Michael Wiley.

ASU defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said he could not recall any game with as many turnovers in his illustrious career, which includes over 25 years of coaching experience in the NFL.

“That’s the first time in my life I’ve been a part of a game like that,” Lewis said. “And I kept repeating that to the coaches on the sideline: ‘I don’t know how this goes. But we just got to keep playing.’ Been on the other side of a first half like that where you start to multiply, but I’ve never been on a game like this.”

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The contest highlighted in stark terms the current difference between the two programs.

Under Edwards, ASU is starting to build a roster that it believes can compete in the upper tier of the Pac-12 Conference and potentially for Pac-12 South championships year in and year out. Arizona, meanwhile, fired Sumlin the day after the 70-7 humiliation.

When both the Arizona and Arizona State coaching jobs opened after the 2017 season, Sumlin was floated as a potential hire for ASU. He had been fired from Texas A&M but posted an 11-2 record in his first year with the Aggies and had the reputation of an excellent recruiter.

But after his record 12th straight loss with the Wildcats, Arizona brass pulled the plug on Sumlin’s tenure in Tucson.

Though the cancellation of three games in this already shortened 2020 season has limited ASU’s ability to see the dividends of Edwards’ hire play out on the field, its efforts in this Territorial Cup suggested the future of the program is bright and that ASU administrators made the right choice by hiring the off-the-map Edwards rather than the established option in Sumlin. The university’s penchant for innovation and its touted NFL model for the football program have proven successful under Edwards’ leadership.

State of the program

Speaking of that roster, the early signing period for college football begins Wednesday and runs through Friday. ASU’s recruiting class ranks 47th in the nation according to 247Sports, a drop from last week, when it was 38th. The change stems in part from four-star wide receiver Dominic Lovett of East St. Louis High School in Illinois changing his commitment to Missouri after ASU turned him loose to make room for FBS transfers in January.

While a player or two may make a surprise commitment to ASU this week, the Sun Devils should sign most of their currently committed 14-player high school class. LSU transfer Travez Moore is also committed to the Sun Devils and could sign this week.

Finishing the 2021 class with a similar flourish to 2020, when ASU closed late on several four-star prospects, would bode well for Edwards and the program’s ability to sustain recruiting momentum year over year. The Sun Devils’ 2020 recruiting class contained eight four-star players and was ranked 23rd in the country, one of the best classes in ASU history. ASU’s 2021 class contains four four-stars after Lovett’s flip.

Several players from the 2020 recruiting class have already made their mark this season. Taylor was a member of that class, as was Jordan Banks, who had one of the Sun Devils’ three interceptions against Arizona.

“We’re hoping we can continue to bring in talented players,” Edwards said after the Territorial Cup. “That’s the key to it all. You’re only as good as the players you have on the field. As a coach, I think at every level, you know that.”

All three ASU running backs who rushed for more than 40 yards against Arizona were members of the 2020 recruiting class, including freshman Daniyel Ngata, who had a newly expanded role in the Sun Devils’ rushing attack. He joined freshman Chip Trayanum and junior college transfer Rachaad White, who have led the Sun Devils’ running game all season.

Each wide receiver who had a reception against Arizona was a true freshman or true sophomore. Freshman Johnny Wilson paced the receiver group with two catches for 50 yards.

Wilson was the highest-rated commitment of the 2020 class for ASU, a late flip from Oregon ranked the No. 116 player in the country. Similar flips or late commitments could push the Sun Devils’ 2021 class closer to the rarified air of 2020 and add more of the talented players Edwards is looking for to build a roster that helps the Sun Devils establish themselves at the top of the conference.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Christian Babcock expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a related area in sustainability. Babcock, who has interned with The Arizona Republic, is a digital reporter for Cronkite Sports this spring.