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December 1, 2013

Sun Devils throttle Wildcats to keep Cup



During pre-game warm ups, Marion Grice was nowhere to be found.

The Arizona State senior running back did not show his face in Sun Devil Stadium until right before kickoff when he was standing with his family being honored with the rest of the seniors. Since he had crutches underneath his arms and a walking boot on his foot, the rumors surrounding ASU that its running back who had scored 20 touchdowns this season wouldn't play had been confirmed.

ASU needed a player to step up in place of its most explosive scoring weapon. Even though it was senior day, ASU's lower underclassmen rose to the challenge in its 58-21 thrashing of rival Arizona Saturday in front of 72,542 at Sun Devil Stadium.

Younger players like sophomore running back D.J. Foster, junior tight end De'Marieya Nelson, junior safety Damarious Randall, and sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong had major roles in the victory.

The ASU seniors might have been overshadowed by their younger teammates. But the seniors have a chance to save their best home game for last. Because of the win, this game will not be the last time the seniors play in Sun Devil Stadium.

The win not only keeps the Territorial Cup in its case in the Carson Center -- a victory lap around the stadium by senior defensive lineman Will Sutton notwithstanding -- but it also solidified ASU's 8-1 conference record, which awards it home field advantage when it hosts Stanford next week for the Pac-12 championship game.

ASU is not only the lone one-loss team in the Pac-12, but it secured its 10th regular season victory for just the second time since in 1996 Rose Bowl season, now 10-2 with two games to play.

Graham did not want to cheapen his team's Territorial Cup win, but made it clear the victory was just a stepping stone for the team to reach its overall season goal.

"That game meant a lot to us tonight," Graham said. "I know it's the most important game to our fans. But it's not the one that we're after. The one we're after is next week."

Foster knew early in the week Grice was not going to able to play. Foster then had to switch his mindset from being a primarily a slot receiver to being a feature running back and take the majority of the carries for the Sun Devil offense.

From the start of the game, Foster wanted to show there was not going to be any dropoff in production with him as the tailback.

He did not disappoint. Foster rushed for 124 yards on 23 carries and scored two rushing touchdowns to help his team rack up 58 total points by one team in the Territorial Cup series since ASU scored 61 in 1951.

For his efforts, Foster earned the game's Bob Moran Most Valuable Player Award as voted on by media members.

"I knew that it was going to be my turn and I didn't want my teammates to feel like anything was going to slack," Foster said. "So I just tried to step up and my coaches and my teammates prepared me well for this week. I just wanted them to have the trust in me that nothing was going to let down."

Graham said after the game the reason his team has a chance to play for a BCS bowl game is because his players have been unselfish. He said he couldn't say that about his team last year.

No player has been more selfless than Foster. He choose to stay in state and play for ASU on what Graham said was blind faith. Graham believed Foster always wanted to be a Sun Devil in his heart. He was recruited as one of the best running backs in the country then had to learn the receiver position on his arrival.

Then, as a sophomore the whole season he had to watch Grice get the majority of the carries, score a plethora of touchdowns and receive a lot of the attention.

Graham said none of that ever bothered Foster.

"How unselfish he is, is what's been impressive," Graham said. "You know when have that, 'Hey what's your role?' and all that. People tried to spurn that deal and all that. Never, ever has he ever, ever been a guy that's had anything to ask about how many times he gets the ball or why isn't he this or that. He's just a winner."

When the rumors were swirling that Grice was not going to play in the game, it was an obvious assumption Foster would take over and have a huge impact on the game.

Tight end De'Marieya Nelson's performance was not as predictable.

A special teams standout and back-up tight end and h-back used primarily in two tight end formations, Nelson did everything Saturday. He had 56 all-purpose yards, two rushing touchdowns, three tackles on special teams.

He even forced a fumble and also recovered it on a UA kickoff return. The ASU offense took the field after the turnover and capitalized with Foster's 7-yard touchdown run.

Nelson did not gain a whole bunch on the ground, only 35 yards on eight carries. ASU called on him on short yardage situations. Nelson used his 6-foot-3, 230 body to powerfully bounce off UA defenders. Both of his scores were 1-yard runs.

Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell asked Nelson to do a lot in the UA game and he thought he played above expectations.

"I've been talking about it all year, what he can do," Norvell said. "You ask a guy to do so many things and he's still in year one of the system. He's done a great job of coming in and adapting to what we're doing, doing a lot of different things. Doing great on special teams. But I think tonight we were able to showcase some of those talents. He plays the game extremely hard. He's physical runner, physical blocker, physical tackling. He's just a tremendous football player."

At the junior college level, Nelson took snaps as a Wildcat quarterback, so he was used to running the ball. Nelson practiced being a short yardage tail back a lot during fall camp, but ASU rarely would put him out there as a running back during games this season.

Graham only had one qualm with Nelson early in the game. On his first carry, Nelson did not have a secure enough grasp on the ball and when he came to the sideline, Graham gave him an earful about ball security. For the rest of the game, Nelson would wrap two arms around the ball every chance he could.

Nelson's performance Saturday showed how Graham and Norvell can adapt their system in one week to fit to their players' skills and adjust in case of an injury.

After the game the entire starting ASU secondary along with junior nickel cornerback Lloyd Carrington was invited to the postgame press conference.

While seniors cornerback Osahon Irabor and safety Alden Darby sat at a table answering questions, junior safety Damarious Randall and true freshman safety Marcus Ball stood patiently listening.

This game will always be a lasting memory for Irabor and Darby, but Randall had the best performance out of the whole self-described Bird Gang.

Randall played solid coverage throughout the game and lead the team with 12 total tackles including one tackle for loss. His most important play came midway through the third quarter.

ASU lead 30-14 but the Wildcats had just scored and were driving again, looking to mount a potential comeback.

UA senior quarterback B.J. Denker stepped back and looked toward a receiver about to make a cut toward the middle of the field on an in route out of bunch formation. Randall appeared to know where Denker was going to throw the ball even before Denker knew himself.

Once Randall knew where the ball was going, he changed the direction of his hips, charged up field and grabbed the ball way before the receiver got close to it. After he had the interception he had nothing but the grass of Frank Kush Field in front of him and he took the interception for a 64-yard touchdown return.

"Me and the corner were playing in and out coverage," Randall said. "He takes the first one out and I take the first one in and there's the ball."

At halftime the Wildcats were down 30-7 but they did not quit. In the second half they came out with some vigor.

They scored a quick touchdown on their first drive of the half, then forced the ASU offense to punt and were driving down the field with a chance to cut the score to as few as eight points with a potential two-point conversion.

They had gotten the ball all the way to the ASU 38-yard line when Randall intercepted Denker's pass. The touchdown game the Sun Devils a commanding 37-14 lead and the hopes of any kind of an UA comeback were gone.

Grice is the undisputed greatest offensive weapon for the Sun Devils. After wide receiver Jaelen Strong started consistently having 100-yard receiving games and became the No. 1 target for junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, a case can be made that he is the second most dynamic player on the offense.

Since Grice could not play, it was imperative for Strong to have a large impact. And he did.

He grabbed four passes for a total of 142 receiving yards which included a 61-yard touchdown grab.

When Graham came to ASU he talked to former players, former coach Frank Kush and fans. All of them made it clear if he did not win the Territorial Cup, it was not a successful season.

He took them seriously and made them happy Saturday night.

Now ASU hosts Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game and a win gets ASU into the Rose Bowl. Although winning the Territorial Cup is important, the game next Saturday means a lot more. It means accomplishing the goal Graham and his players set out to accomplish at the beginning of the season.


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