Arizona's season ends in Territorial Cup disaster against Arizona State

ASU QB Manny Wilkins celebrates with the trophy after a 41-40 win in Tucson.Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Questionable strategy contributed to crushing loss

Arizona State players came out of the locker room to a near empty stadium, except for a pocket of gold-clad Sun Devils fans in the stands on the northwest side, eager to see the prize.

The Territorial Cup.

ASU posed with it, pretended to take drinks out of it, kissed it and figuratively clutched the damn thing to its soul after Arizona had two hands on the trophy and decided to let it go in a series of lamentable errors in strategy and ability that will be long-remembered, with different reactions, on both sides of the rivalry.

Arizona State won 41-40, scoring 20 fourth-quarter points. The Wildcats in the fourth quarter had two turnovers, one missed field goal in the final seconds and no points at all.

It was, for the Sun Devils, an epic victory that harkened to the epic games and finishes of the 1980s and 1990s, when Arizona won more than its fair share with a parade of heroes -- Tunnicliffe, Zendejas, Cecil, DeBow, White, Dice, Canidate.

It was, for the Wildcats, a crushing loss to end coach Kevin Sumlin's first season at 5-7. There will be no bowl. There will be no offseason goodwill. There will be no preseason Heisman talk. There will just be the lingering memories of what happened at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night.

There were the early red-zone failures, with Arizona having to kick field goals of 29, 23 and 36 yards.

There were the two ASU fumbles in its territory that Arizona players got their hands on and didn't recover.

There was Sumlin going for a two-point conversion with 4:25 to go in the second quarter, up 19-7.

There was Sumlin going for two again with 7:51 to go in the third quarter, up 33-21.

Think those two PATs might have meant something?

"Basically, we got off number early based on some statistical data that we use and we tried to get back on an even number," Sumlin said. "It's really based on that, the statistical data."

(Free advice for Arizona's offensive analysts: Do not chase points before the fourth quarter. This is not hard.)

I mean, the Cats were up 22-14 at halftime when they had played well enough to be up at least 35-14 ... and then maybe the nonsense that followed wouldn't haven't mattered.

With 13:03 left and Arizona up 40-24, Arizona began to try to run out the clock. JJ Taylor carried on six consecutive plays before a punt.

ASU scored a TD. Khalil Tate threw an interception. ASU kicked a field goal. Taylor fumbled. ASU scored a TD.

Josh Pollack missed a 45-yard field goal, wide right, with 11 seconds to go.

"The biggest issue to me was the two turnovers," Sumlin said. "Two turnovers on your side of the 50. Those two turnovers at the end of the game on our side of the 50 cost us more than anything. From a strategy standpoint, you're not planning on turning it over twice on your side of the 50."

Tate, not to his credit, did not answer a question about what he saw on the pass that was intercepted. He skipped commenting on a question on whether he would be back at Arizona in 2019 after a mostly disappointing junior season. Looking for a leader who will stand up and take the heat after a tough loss? That wasn't Tate this season.

Arizona seemed to have this game won a thousand different ways ... and still lost.

The coaching staff accelerated when they should have gone the speed limit (the two-point conversions) and hit the brakes when they should have accelerated (trying to bleed the clock).

And so the happy ending goes to ASU and its first-year head coach Herm Edwards, whose team improved to 7-5 overall and finished second in the Pac-12 South at 5-4. Arizona was 5-7 and 4-5 in a season in which it had the advantage of missing Washington and Stanford in the conference season.

Arizona had a big window of opportunity this season and that window came crashing down on the Wildcats' fingers just as it looked as if they would crawl through and get to a bowl, any dang bowl.

Instead, it's as one Arizona football alum told me after the game, "a disaster."

Sounds about right.

The Wildcats will be hearing echoes of "ASU ... ASU" in a long offseason.