November 30, 2004
TUCSON - Can Arizona State blame it on overconfidence? On the fact that four defensive players sat out portions of the game for violating team rules?
That, in a quirky streak that has now spanned nine decades, the Sun Devils still have never beaten rival Arizona in a year that ends in "4?"
There was no need to dig that deep for answers in Saturday’s 34-27 loss to the Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. The culprit for ending a positive season on a negative note, for allowing their undermanned rival to dictate the day before 55,095 fans, could easily be found in the closest mirror.
There was room for almost every Sun Devil reflection.
A two-touchdown favorite coming in, ASU (8-3, 5-3 Pac-10) broke down in every imaginable facet, watching the hyped-up Wildcats (3-8, 2-6) save its season by pouncing on every mistake.
When it was over, the Sun Devils had lost the game, their No. 18 ranking and even record-breaking quarterback Andrew Walter, who left the game after suffering a separated right shoulder with 7:30 to play.
Walter, who threw for 320 yards but no touchdowns, will be examined further today. He did not speak to reporters.
ASU is still likely headed to the Holiday Bowl, as long as top-ranked Southern California or No. 4 California — the other two teams to beat the Devils this season — keep winning and head to the Orange and Rose bowls, respectively.
That was of little consolation Saturday.
"It’s real tough. Unthinkable," senior defensive end Ishmael Thrower said. "After the season we had, we never came out here thinking we were going to lose. I can’t really describe how I feel right now.
"We didn’t underestimate them. We prepared, we worked. Things just didn’t go our way."
The offense turned the ball over five times, leading directly to 24 Arizona points. The special teams had a field goal blocked — actually Jesse Ainsworth’s 44-yard attempt was so low it hit his own teammate, Stephen Berg, in the back.
And the defense allowed an Arizona offense — ranked dead last among the nation’s 117 Division 1-A teams in scoring — to pile up 398 yards of offense and four touchdowns. Included in that were scoring passes of 54 and 47 yards by redshirt freshman quarterback Richard Kovalcheck (a career-high 239 passing yards, three touchdowns)
Add in 139 yards on the ground from senior Mike Bell, and Arizona, a team that had scored 110 points coming in, lit up the scoreboard.
"It’s a no-brainer," ASU coach Dirk Koetter said. "There are very few teams that are talented enough to lay the ball on the ground five times and not capitalize in the red zone and still win."
Incredibly, the Devils still had their chances. Backup quarterback Sam Keller came on for the injured Walter and completed five straight passes to finish off a scoring drive, the last pass to sophomore Jamaal Lewis for a 3-yard touchdown to make it a 34-27 game with 5:05 left. After a defensive stand, Keller then used a 42-yard pass to receiver Moey Mutz to reach the Wildcats’ 23 with more than a minute left.
But on fourth-and-10, receiver Matt Miller dropped what would have been a first down at the Arizona 12 and the Wildcats took over on downs — and ran out the clock.
"It hurts him more than anybody else," Keller said of Miller. "(He’s) one of my good buddies on the team. He’s a great receiver who makes that catch 99 times out of 100."
Many felt before the game that if it was played 100 times, ASU would win 99. But the Wildcats played an inspired game under firstyear coach Mike Stoops and once again proved that anything can happen in his unpredictable rivalry.
‘‘Just making a few plays can make all the difference in the world in games,’’ Stoops said. ‘‘Arizona State gave up a lot of points in the last half of the season. I knew we’d have to score to have a chance."
ASU played short-handed defensively in the first half when four players were suspended for violating team rules. Two seniors, safety Riccardo Stewart and linebacker Justin Burks, sat out the first quarter while junior Dale Robinson didn’t play in the second. A fourth player, an ASU defensive reserve, was not identified.
"When you violate team rules there is a price to be paid even if it puts our team at risk," Koetter said. "It definitely did today."
ASU took leads of 3-0 and 10-3 in the first quarter, only to see the Wildcats respond each time. The second Arizona score, a 54-yard touchdown pass from Kovalcheck to tight end Steve Fleming, came after the Devils’ first miscue — and the first of two Hakim Hill fumbles.
Hill led ASU with 85 rushing yards, but was benched after a second fumble set up a third-quarter field goal by Arizona.
"We fumbled I don’t know how many times and you can’t do that," ASU tight end Zach Miller said. "The ball just came out I don’t know how. We were asking for trouble all day and that’s what we got. I’m pretty stunned."