Editor's note: The Tribune recently spoke with Queen Creek resident Shane Dale about his new book 'Territorial: The History of the Duel in the Desert." Dale. The following portion of the book centers primarily on the Dec. 2, 2010 meeting in Tucson between rivals Arizona and Arizona State. ASU won that meeting, 30-29 in two overtimes. 'Territorial' is available now for purchase at Amazon.com.
What goes around, comes around
After a pair of deflating one-point losses earlier in the season, two words were going through [then-ASU head coach Dennis] Erickson’s mind when 23rd-ranked Arizona scored what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown.
“Déjà vu,” he said. “All of a sudden you’re thinking about, with 30 seconds, how we’re going to get back.”
[ASU broadcaster Tim] Healey, who had called his share of gut-wrenching Sun Devil losses to the Cats, was thinking the same thing. “I think my thought process was along the lines of, ‘Here we go again. Another disheartening loss,’” He said. “This was going to be the cruel way to cap a frustrating season – another close-but-no-cigar game for the Sun Devils, who made a living out of losing those heartbreakers in 2010.”
On the other side of the media aisle, [Arizona Daily Star UA football beat writer Ryan] Finley sat in the press box and remembered several extra points that Zendejas had missed throughout the season. “We had watched him kick all year,” he said, “and I hate to sound like generic media cliché guy here, but in this game, so many funny things happen. Anything in this game can happen, to the point that when they do connect on routine things like a short pass or making an easy tackle or a chip-shot field goal, you’re almost surprised. And the way I felt with [former UA kicker Alex] Zendejas was, ‘Let’s see if he can get this thing through the uprights.’
“As a guy on deadline, I was pretty smart to where I didn’t start writing the ‘Arizona wins’ story just yet. I think it was 9 at night and I had about 20 minutes to file it, but I wanted to sit there and watch. And I think it was one of those moments in the press box when everybody kind of stops. I think I closed the lid to my laptop and was thinking, ‘I want to watch this and see what happens.’
“And sure enough, he misses.”
Defensive end James Brooks singlehandedly redeemed the Sun Devils’ season by getting his hand up and blocking Zendejas’ PAT.
“At that point, obviously it was thrilling to see from a Sun Devil perspective because it was such a huge play, and you realize the irony that a team that had lost two games by a margin of blocked extra points this year had just kept its hopes alive by blocking one,” Healey said.
“At that point, you figure the extra point’s automatic. And then, all of a sudden, James Brooks steps into the spotlight, and that’s a great moment.”
Zendejas has replayed the kick in his head many times. “I kicked it, he blocked it. I watched it plenty times running through my mind. It happened, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “I give him credit. He got up there, and it probably wasn’t the best kick on my part, but it happened.”
Erickson said Lady Luck was finally smiling on his team. “All of a sudden, the football gods were on our side in that particular game,” he said. “We get one blocked against SC and one blocked against Wisconsin. It could’ve been a different season.
“But I think God looked down and thought we suffered enough. I know he looked down at me and said, ‘That gray-haired dude’s really suffered.’”
The block sent the game to overtime – a first in Duel history - and [former Arizona head coach Mike] Stoops and his team had no choice but to try to refocus.
“Missing the extra point, it really hurt us,” he said, “but we kind of regrouped and finished the game, and I thought we’d win in overtime. We were moving the ball. Nick got hot in the fourth quarter, and everything he threw was right. So I felt good going into the overtime.”
The two teams traded field goals in the first OT – Zendejas shook off the block to connect on a 19-yard try, and [ASU kicker Tomas] Weber, on what would have been the final play of his collegiate career if he’d have missed, sent a 40-yard attempt straight through the uprights for his fifth and final make of the game.
Weber (2007-10), a 2007 All-American, had struggled throughout his senior year but made up for it - and then some - with his 5-for-5 performance that night in Tucson. “I started to struggle because you start thinking too much,” he said. “I think it was just the support of my coaches and teammates, the entire coaching staff – they picked me up, and (I got) the opportunity to repay them and uphold my end of the bargain.”
ASU got the ball first to start the second overtime, and Osweiler’s 19-yard pass to Taylor set up a 2-yard rushing touchdown by running back Cameron Marshall, with Weber’s PAT giving the Devils a 30-23 advantage.
[Arizona quarterback Nick] Foles once again had an answer. A lateral that [wide receiver David] Douglas took in for a touchdown from 9 yards out pulled the Wildcats to within one point, meaning they were an extra point away from sending the game to a third overtime.
But before the attempt, Zendejas said, he committed what kickers consider a cardinal sin. “I remember going into that, I did what kickers weren’t supposed to do: I thought about the last one,” he said. “So instead of going through the same technique I usually do, I thought, ‘I have to get this one higher,’ because the last one got blocked. That’s one of the big things I learned since that kick: Every kick you have to hit the same.”
As a result, Zendejas’ kick was low, and Brooks once again deflected the ball, sending it wide right and just short of the crossbar. The Sun Devil sideline and fan contingent at Arizona Stadium erupted, while the Wildcat fans, including the 10,000-strong “ZonaZoo” student section, stood as one in disbelief.
Final: ASU 30, UA 29 in double overtime.
Healey was happy to see a crazy Duel finish, at long last, go in Arizona State’s favor.
“I guess you can sum it up by saying that’s the kind of play that went Arizona’s way from 1982-90,” he said. “So maybe not only were the Sun Devils due to have that kind of a play because of what happened to them in the 2010 season, but for those of us who have been around long enough to remember, maybe that’s the kind of play that Arizona State was due to have after seeing UA get plays like that for nine consecutive years in the ’80s and early ’90s.”
Pflugrad said it was about time that his team got on the winning end of a one-point game for the first time that season. “I remember Coach Erickson saying something after the game about karma and everything because we had lost two (games) on extra points,” he said. “For us to get the block, that was awesome.”
ASU linebacker Colin Parker (2007-11), son of former Sun Devil standout Anthony Parker,had the same thought cross his mind. “The first thing I thought about when we blocked the first one was something finally went our way,” he said. “And having it go the other way just made it 100 times better.”
The ASU players took their celebration to the corner of the field where their fans were located. Weber took Sparky’s pitchfork and thrust it into the turf in the south end zone – a longtime Sun Devil custom following a road win.
“It was just that feeling that we’ll remember forever, being our last game,” Weber said.“It definitely doesn’t change the fact that we could’ve had a much better season, but for us in our last game, it was great.”
ASU finished the season 6-6, and while the Devils were not invited to a bowl game, Erickson said their postgame celebration in a cramped Arizona Stadium locker room was like few others he had witnessed in his coaching career. “It was unbelievable,” he said. “The season had been a tough season,but we’d won a couple in a row and we had some momentum going. It was fun is what I guess I could say.”
On the UA side, Stoops pointed to missed opportunities throughout the game on which the Wildcats failed to capitalize. “I think we didn’t help ourselves. We dropped three interceptions in the first half right in our hands, and that hurt us,” he said. “We seemed depressed a lot in that game. It was a weird, freaky game.
“We scored with, what, 29 seconds to go? And I thought, ‘Wow, what a great way to end the season.’ And it was really disheartening. That will probably go down as one of my hardest losses ever. That one hurt in a lot of ways. We were kind of struggling through the end of the year. It just hurt our momentum, and that’s been the hard thing at Arizona, to sustain momentum. That really hurt our momentum as a program.”
The Cats’ hangover from the loss persisted through their appearance in their first Alamo Bowl, where they were soundly defeated for the second straight time in a postseason game, this time 36-10 by Oklahoma State.
Zendejas looks back, forward
Like Kyle Williams a year earlier, Alex Zendejas placed the blame for what transpired at the end of his team’s heartbreaking Duel defeaton his own shoulders.
“The second kick, I threw my technique off by trying to get it higher than the first one, so that was my fault,” he said. “I take full responsibility for that kick.”
And like Williams, Zendejas said he received his share of nasty comments from fans but also got a great deal of support. “I had a lot of people come to my side and encourage me,” he said. “My family was the biggest part. My dad, my mom, my brother, my uncles – they all came to my side and told me that that’s the life of a kicker sometimes. They’ve all had their ups and downs, they’ve all had game-winners, and they’ve all missed plenty of times. So they were just, ‘Let it make you stronger. Let it be the fuel behind everything to keep going.’”
But Alex said the 2010 Duel continued to play with his head in his senior season in 2011, and that contributed to him losing his starting job.
“As much as I didn’t want it to, in the offseason I heard a lot of stuff, and I wasn’t as prepared for what I was going to be going through,” he said.
“It’s still something I think about. I can’t take it back. I wish I would’ve bounced back better than I did.”
If there’s one athlete who’s experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in the Duel in the Desert, it’s Alex Zendejas. “For me, you’ve got to take the bad with the good,” he said. “2009 was a great feeling, especially to (kick the game-winner) there in their stadium. For all the reasons that was so great, those were the same reasons that the 2010 game wasn’t as great. I had a lot of people that I knew at Arizona Stadium, and having to go to class the next day, it was rough.
“But at the same time, I’m still trying to learn from it, still trying to go forward. I’m not going to let what people have to say bring me down or discourage me, and I know what I’m capable of doing. I have the uncles, the dad, the people to be supportive, help me out and keep pushing forward.”