Rivalry Revived: Remembering The Best (And Worst) Games Between Arizona-Arizona State

Written By Grant Lucas on November 25, 2021

The date has been circled for months.

Of course, they always strive for achievements that earn banners and wide acclaim. But when it comes to the Arizona Wildcats and Arizona State Sun Devils, one date — one game — seemingly stands above all others. A game that carries more than a simple trophy, albeit the oldest trophy in all of college football rivalries.

This is the battle for the Territorial Cup: the Duel in the Desert.

Off and on since 1899 (and every year since 1946), Arizona and Arizona State have squared off, bringing together arguably one of the better rivalries in college football.

It’s a game that has produced some of the greats: Antonio Pierce, an Arizona alum who now serves as defensive coordinator for ASU; Chuck Cecil, a college football hall of fame from UArizona who now coaches DBs at his alma mater; Darren Woodson, a three time Super Bowl-winning safety; Terrell Suggs, one of the fiercest defensive players in NFL history who won two NFL titles.

The list goes on.

But it’s not just the great players who have emerged from the Duel in the Desert. Sometimes, the games themselves are more memorable. Of course, with over 94 editions of the Territorial Cup rivalry, there is bound to include some duds. Here, we present the three best and worst games in the history of the Territorial Cup.

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Duel in the Desert: Best games in Territorial Cup history

Such a large sample size of a rivalry certainly features a host of thrillers and nail-biters. But no others stack up quite like these three matchups.

1975: No. 8 Arizona State 24, No. 12 Arizona 21

Perhaps the greatest season in the history of Arizona State football, the Sun Devils welcomed their rivals into Tempe with a No. 8 ranking and an undefeated record. For their part, though, the No. 12 Wildcats brought in a 9-1 record, setting up an epic WAC clash. To the winner, aside from the coveted Territorial Cup, went the Western Athletic Conference championship and a berth into the Fiesta Bowl — played at Sun Devil Stadium.

Arizona came out hot, jumping out to a 14-3 lead and threatening to pull the upset. Late in the first half, however, ASU had the ball at the Wildcats’ 8-yard line. A pass from QB Dennis Sproul appeared errant, yet John Jefferson tapped into a Stretch Armstrong-like superpower. Jefferson went full-extension, snagged the ball out of the air and secured it (depending on who you ask) for a touchdown.

That was the vacuum ASU needed to suck the wind out of its rival’s sails. Still, in the second half, the Sun Devils needed a rushing TD from Sproul to put away the Wildcats, capping a 12-0 regular season, the WAC title and a date with Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.

Oh, by the way, Arizona State edged the Cornhuskers 17-14 to earn a No. 2 ranking in the final polls. It remains the best finish in program history.

2010: Arizona State 30, Arizona 29

Shield your eyes, Alex Zendejas. A year earlier, the nephew of Arizona kicking great Max Zendejas booted a game-winning field goal to defeat ASU on the road. This time around, no such luck.

Alex Zendejas, already suffering an inconsistent 2010 season, had two point-after kicks blocked by the Sun Devils. Many like to call this game the James Brooks Block Party.

Granted, this type of game has some of the makings of a dud, especially considering that the two teams combined for 18 punts, with four of them not exceeding 20 yards.

But it was the finish. Arizona State ripped off 14 straight points in the fourth quarter to grab a six-point lead on Arizona. The Wildcats scored with less than 30 seconds to play in regulation, but James Brooks swatted away the would-be game-winning extra point to force overtime.

Once would be enough for most players. Not Brooks.

In the second overtime, Arizona found the end zone and needed the point-after to send the game to another extra session. Once again, Brooks soared and batted the attempt out of the air. Game over.

1987: Arizona 24, Arizona State 24

We know, we know. How can you have a tie as one of the best games ever?

Because … well … it’s incredible that it even ENDED in a tie.

Arizona State, playing at home, appeared on its way to snapping a five-game losing streak against its rival. Late in the third quarter, though, UArizona erased an eight-point deficit to even things up 21-21.

The Sun Devils righted the ship (they thought) with a field goal to go up three points with less than three minutes to play. And an interception appeared as though it sealed the victory.

Again, they thought.

With 20 seconds to play, facing fourth down, all-Pac-10 punter Matt Schuh simply needed to air out a boot to put the Wildcats miles away from a shot a pulling off a miracle.

Schuh, though, couldn’t pull that off. After dropping the ball, he attempted to kick it from the ground. That’s a penalty. Now in possession at the ASU 13-yard line, Arizona punched in the game-tying field goal to salvage a draw — the Wildcats’ third tie of the season.

And Arizona State wouldn’t end the rivalry losing streak for another four years.

Duel in the Desert: Worst games in Territorial Cup history

These we’ll keep short and sweet. Well, as sweet as they can be. Because what’s worse than a lopsided contest, especially if you have to relive it?

2020: Arizona State 70, Arizona 7

That isn’t a typo. Though Wildcat Nation may want it to be.

This game was over at the half. If not by the end of the first quarter. The Sun Devils put up two TDs within the first minute of the game.

It was the second-most points in ASU history and featured a school record of 10 touchdowns. Rachaad White racked up 133 yards rushing and 3 TDs (including a 93-yard scoring run), while Jayden Daniels needed just nine completions to pile up 203 yards and two TDs.

Arizona finished with seven turnovers. But at least the Wildcats had more first downs (18) than ASU (17).

1996: No. 4 Arizona State 56, Arizona 14

Almost the perfect season for Arizona State. And it was showcased against the Wildcats.

Three running backs — Terry Battle (143), Marlon Farlow (93) and Jeff Paulk (82) — combined for 318 rushing yards as the Sun Devils blistered Arizona.

Even through the air, Arizona State seemingly could do no wrong. Keith Poole, after all, put up 123 yards and two TDs on just four catches.

Arizona State, ranked No. 2 at the time of the postseason game, eventually went on to lose to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl on a last-second touchdown by the Buckeyes. A win would have likely earned the Sun Devils their first national championship. Alas, they had to settle for a No. 4-rank finish to the season.

1946: Arizona 67, Arizona State 0

The year that the Territorial Cup became an annual event.

And it was the season opener. Arizona State sure played like it; not Arizona.

The Wildcats torched, boat-raced, housed — pick a phrase — the Sun Devils in what remains the largest margin of victory in the rivalry’s history.

Really, there isn’t much to say about this game. Which is why it lives here.

Not all Territorial Cup games can be Hollywood-like. But they’re always memorable.

Photo by AP / Rick Scuteri
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Grant Lucas

Grant Lucas is a longtime sports writer who has covered the high school, collegiate and professional levels. A graduate of Linfield College in McMinnville, Grant has covered games and written features and columns surrounding prep sports, Linfield and Oregon State athletics, the Portland Trail Blazers and golf throughout his career.

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