TEMPE — It wasn’t 70-7.
But it wasn’t a win either.
Unlike last year’s mess of a game, the Arizona Wildcats were feisty and competitive in the 2021 Territorial Cup. They weren’t good enough to bring the trophy back to Tucson.
Arizona lost to rival Arizona State 38-15 at Sun Devil Stadium. It was the Wildcats’ fifth consecutive defeat against their in-state rivals.
Arizona finished 1-11, 1-8 in the Pac-12 in Jedd Fisch’s first season as head coach. It’s the Wildcats’ worst record in a full season since they went 1-8-1 in 1957. Arizona was 0-5 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.
“Our team never stopped competing all season long,” Fisch said. “I never once walked into a locker room that was splintered. Never once walked on the practice field where there was one side of the ball blaming another. Never once did we have any issues whatsoever within our program.
“They have battled, scrapped, clawed and never quit under very difficult circumstances.”
ASU finished the regular season 8-4, 6-3, and now awaits a bowl invitation. Arizona will not participate in the postseason for the fourth consecutive year.
“I felt like this one we were right there,” Fisch said. “We really just couldn’t get over the hump. And that’s kind of been the story.”
The Wildcats trailed by only five points at halftime. The Sun Devils made it a two-score game on Jayden Daniels’ 48-yard scramble for a touchdown on the fourth play of the third quarter. UA pass rusher Malik Reed appeared to be held on the play, but no flag was thrown.
Daniels rushed for 86 yards, passed for 86 and accounted for three touchdowns.
Arizona trimmed its deficit to 21-15 on the next possession on Will Plummer’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Michael Wiley. Plummer threw for a career-high 346 yards — the most ever by a Wildcat in the Territorial Cup — but also lost a fumble and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. The pick-six, by ASU cornerback Jack Jones, all but put the game away in the fourth quarter.
Those mistakes aside, Plummer showed steady growth this season. The second-year freshman began the season as the backup, at one point lost the starting job, then gradually improved when he became the full-time starter amid injuries in the QB room.
“Will’s gotten really good,” Fisch said. “It’s pretty awesome that he was able to build this foundation. The leap that he made from the third game of the season till today is really impressive.”
Daniels’ 14-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Pearsall – their second such hookup of the game – plus a 2-point conversion bumped ASU’s lead to 29-15. A safety – the result of a holding foul in the end zone on a punt – made it 31-15 with 1:44 left in the third quarter.
Following a familiar pattern, Arizona committed 12 penalties for 96 yards. The Wildcats also scored only one touchdown in five trips inside the red zone, continuing a season-long trend.
Arizona had one last glimmer of hope in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats had the ball at the ASU 23-yard line down 16 points. On first-and-10, Plummer forced a pass to the left side. Jones returned it 87 yards for a touchdown to make it 38-15 with 9:49 to play.
The first half was typical of the 2021 Cats. Arizona entered the red zone three times and didn’t score a single touchdown. The Wildcats also committed a critical turnover.
With the score 7-6 in ASU’s favor in the second quarter, Arizona faced third-and-4 from its 34. Plummer was forced out of the pocket. Before Plummer could throw the ball away, Jones stripped it. The ball bounded to the 1, where ASU’s Tyler Johnson fell on it. Rachaad White crashed into the end zone on the next play to make it 14-6.
Tyler Loop’s third field goal of the first half, with 2:19 to go, trimmed the deficit to five.
If you took under-2.5 on how many plays it would take for Fisch to run a gadget play, you cashed your ticket. On Arizona’s second play from scrimmage, Jamarye Joiner took a direct snap. Only two linemen were positioned near the ball. Joiner threw a backward pass to Plummer, who then fired the ball to Dorian Singer for a 44-yard gain to the ASU 24.
In typical fashion, the Wildcats couldn’t score a touchdown once they entered the red zone. Loop’s 32-yard field goal gave Arizona a 3-0 lead. The Wildcats entered this week ranked last in the nation in red-zone touchdown percentage, having converted only 32.3% of the time (11 of 34).
ASU responded with a touchdown drive. The key plays: Daniels’ 11-yard scramble; Daniels’ 27-yard pass to White; and Daniels’ 14-yard TD pass to Pearsall.
Arizona answered with another long drive that ended in a field goal. Plummer and Singer again hooked up on a long ball, this one for 36 yards. The Wildcats reached the 1-yard line three plays later. A false start on Jordan Morgan pushed them back. They had to settle for another Loop field goal, which made it 7-6.
If there’s a bright side to what went down Saturday, it’s that the Wildcats never folded. The same couldn’t be said during last year’s rivalry game.
“I think it speaks a lot to the culture that this new staff has brought in,” said senior center Josh McCauley, who played his final game for Arizona. “Last year it was easy for guys to give up. This year we played for each other all year long.
“No matter what curveball gets thrown at us, no matter what happens, these guys really stuck together and just played their hearts out. Left it all out there.”
Singer was ejected early in the third quarter for a “flagrant unsportsmanlike conduct” foul. The freshman finished with two catches for 80 yards.
UA defensive ends Jalen Harris and Mo Diallo were hurt on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. Harris returned soon after. Diallo did not.
Joiner returned to the lineup after missing last week’s game at Washington State. Right guard Josh Donovan also returned.
Donovan Laie returned to the lineup at left guard after missing the WSU game. Laie finished the game at left tackle after Morgan got banged up.
UA free safety Gunner Maldonado made his first start since Oct. 16 at Colorado, replacing Jaydin Young. The two ended up splitting time.
ASU played without several regulars. They included tight end Jalen Conyers, offensive lineman Henry Hattis, linebackers Merlin Robertson and Darien Butler, and defensive backs Evan Fields and Kejuan Markham.
Eschewing tradition, Arizona wore its military-tribute “Dress Whites” for the Territorial Cup. The Wildcats previously wore them in the home finale vs. Utah.