As University of Arizona revelers celebrated at midfield, those Arizona State players who remained on the playing surface rushed to defend their home turf in a symbol that may ultimately define the Dennis Erickson-era at the University: too little, too late.
For the twelfth time in their last 15 games decided by a touchdown or less, the Sun Devils lost Saturday, this one coming in an all too familiar way. A 10 point fourth quarter lead vanished as the Wildcats scored two final period touchdowns and a last minute ASU rally fell short as the visitors earned a staggering 31-27 Territorial Cup win at Sun Devil Stadium.
ASU's third consecutive loss made it a disappointing 6-5 overall and 4-4 in conference play but may not have ended its chances to appear in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game - the Sun Devils can get there with a win over Cal on Friday followed by a UCLA loss to USC and Utah win over Colorado - but it puts Erickson's future in doubt.
"I think we just hit a point in the season where we kind of thought we had arrived maybe, and we lost hunger," ASU senior defensive tackle Bo Moos said. "The blame is on the players. Our coaches have coached this week the same way they've coached the week against USC, against Missouri. The blame is on the players.
"[Erickson] wants the leadership to come from the players, which is where it should come from. When you have a group of 30 seniors, you should expect it to be there, but something with the chemistry hasn't been right the last month and I really can't put my finger on it."
Arizona improved to 3-8 and 2-7 in league play, giving it something to build on heading into its final regular season game, against Louisiana-Lafayette Saturday, and into next season as they look for a new head coach.
The Sun Devils took a 27-17 early in the fourth quarter on a 27-yard field goal by redshirt freshman Alex Garoutte at the 12:33 mark, but allowed the Wildcats to an easy 96-yard touchdown drive that took just over two minutes and seven plays, none of which was a third down. The drive concluded with a 33-yard reception by Gino Crump, which saw four Sun Devils get a hand on Crump before he reached the end zone to close to the deficit to 27-24.
On its next possession, ASU elected to go for a fourth and three from the Arizona 39 yard line but senior quarterback Brock Osweiler couldn't connect with senior receiver Mike Willie and the Wildcats took over in decent field position.
In just six plays, Arizona again scored to take a 31-27 lead, this time with backup quarterback Bryson Beirne connecting with Juron Criner for a 24 yard touchdown, with ASU senior safety Eddie Elder missing a routine tackle of Criner near the line of scrimmage, and junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict a split-second late in his diving attempt in open field.
Osweiler pushed the Sun Devils into scoring territory on their next possession, but threw his second interception of the game into a double covered junior Jamal Miles with just under three minutes remaining.
The Sun Devils got the ball back after an Arizona punt with 1:13 remaining, and frantically drove the ball to the Arizona 15 yard line with just nine seconds left on the clock. Osweiler got two attempts at getting it into the end zone, but his first pass was incomplete to Miles and second was incomplete to senior receiver Mike Willie at the goal line as time expired.
"It doesn't get any more disappointing than losing that football game," Erickson said. "With the crowd that we had and all the things going for us, to give up a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and get down there twice and not get anything is just devastating."
ASU's beleaguered coach may have to pull off a miracle to save his job. At this point, a gift-horse berth in the Pac-12 Title game coupled with a win at Oregon that would yield an improbable Rose Bowl appearance may not be enough considering how the last month has played out, and the expectations that existed following three consecutive seasons without a bowl appearance.
Early on, it looked as though the Wildcats might win going away as a continuation of ASU's poor defensive showing at Washington State contributed to a 14-0 deficit, with big plays again yielded by the secondary. Miles recovered his own fumble on a kickoff after the second score or else it could have gotten really ugly.
Osweiler - who completed 36 of 65 passing attempts for a monstrous 487 yards and one touchdown with two crucial interceptions - guided the Sun Devils to three second quarter touchdowns and a 21-14 lead. It including his lone touchdown pass, an 11-yard strike to senior Gerell Robinson, whose Territorial Cup record 199 receiving yards on 11 catches was wasted in the loss.
Pushing for more, the Sun Devils got very aggressive with their final drive of the half, with Osweiler throwing incomplete on second and third down before a Josh Hubner punt gave the Wildcats the ball with 33 seconds left before intermission.
Foles promptly completed passes of 17 and 18 yards and used a roughing the passer penalty by defensive end Davon Coleman to put his team in range for a John Bonano field goal with two seconds left, an opportunity that wouldn't have happened save for the untimely penalty and ASU's clock management on the prior possession. Two hallmarks of an Erickson era seemingly near its terminus.