Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel took a knee near his team’s bench, which was a good way to describe the UA’s night at Sun Devil Stadium.
Casteel began to scribble X’s and O’s on a whiteboard, inserting squiggly lines in every direction, asking his players the most elementary question in football:
Who had No. 17?
Nobody had No. 17. Nobody even knew who he was.
Casteel gestured to cornerback Jonathan McKnight, then to linebackers Jake Fischer and Scooby Wright. The coach pounded his marker on the whiteboard for emphasis, as if to declare, “next time, someone cover No. 17!’’
And then Casteel took a towel and erased the X’s and O’s and all the squiggly lines.
But the scoreboard still said ASU 13, Arizona 0. You couldn’t erase that.
Darwin Rogers, No. 17, a Sun Devil blocking back who had only caught three passes all season, did not catch another pass all night, but he didn’t have to. Left unguarded late in the first quarter, Rogers ran 38 yards for a touchdown.
It wasn’t checkmate, but ASU had certainly put the Cats in check.
There was more than enough blame to go around on Arizona’s sideline Saturday night. The Wildcats couldn’t effectively block the ASU defensive front, and they never gave any indication they could stop, or even stall, the Sun Devils’ Rose Bowl Express.
It was the type of old-fashioned whipping Frank Kush used to put on the Wildcats, an old, familiar feeling of exasperation, the type that when you trail 30-7 at halftime you almost hope the lights go out or they call the game on some type of Territorial Cup mercy rule.
ASU won 58-21 and it wasn’t that close. A lot of it can be traced back to ex-ASU coach Dennis Erickson’s robust recruiting classes of 2009 and 2010, and the 12 seniors who now play extensively, and effectively, on defense.
And some of it can be pinned on Mike Stoops’ thin recruiting classes of the same period, those that left Casteel with an undersized and oft out-manned defensive unit.
“That’s a veteran, mature, older defense,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said in the build-up to Saturday’s game. “That might be the oldest defense in the country.”
If the Sun Devils were any older, they’d be called the Arizona Cardinals.
“We physically dominated the game,” said ASU coach Todd Graham. “I thought we dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and our special teams were stellar. We won special teams tonight, too.”
What else is there?
In the there’s-still-four-years-left-on-his-contract context, RichRod won’t lose any equity for Saturday’s debacle. You could see this one coming from a mile away. The 10-2 Sun Devils have been rumbling down the tracks all season, destined for something grand.
Arizona is a 7-5 team and that’s probably a game over its skill level. Do you know what 7-5 is in today’s FBS football? It’s Maryland. It’s Georgia Tech. It’s Ole Miss.
This is what often happens to a 7-5 team in its rivalry road game: After Rogers scored to give ASU a 13-0 lead, the Sun Devils found another way to break the Wildcats. Reserve tailback D. J. Foster ran outside for 29 yards, meeting no resistance. Foster then gashed off tackle for seven yards and, finally, bounced outside for 14 more and a touchdown.
It was 20-0, and Casteel was much more animated than he had been when no one covered No. 17 a few minutes earlier.
Casteel met Wright at the 30-yard line and began pointing toward ASU’s bench. Once the two reached Arizona’s sideline, Casteel again took a knee, again grabbed his whiteboard, and this time pounded on it with his fist.
He drew more X’s and O’s. He drew more squiggly lines. He shouted a bit and pretty soon it was 27-0. And then 44-21.
UA has made progress this year, and some of it has been visible on the field. Most of it has come off the field, in cement, mortar and recruiting.
Arizona beat Oregon, didn’t it?
It qualified for a bowl game with an interim quarterback, B. J. Denker, who, on Saturday, met his match and then some. And it got a ton of favorable attention by trotting out Ka’Deem Carey, who broke just about every UA rushing record of consequence and will certainly be a consensus All-American again.
The downside? Carey has almost surely played his last college regular-season game and he’ll forever have to say his Arizona days never included a serious run at the Rose Bowl.
Casteel’s defense, which yielded a school-record-worst 499 yards per game a year ago, has shaved that by almost 100 yards this season, and kept the Wildcats in almost every game.
By this time next year, in Tucson, the UA will have no wiggle room. You can’t lose three Territorial Cups in your first three tries and keep a honeymoon alive.
On Saturday, except for a few bruised egos and hurt feelings, losing to the Sun Devils has almost no lasting consequences for 11 months.
As Saturday’s game became more Kush-like, with a fireworks display and ASU threatening to score 60 points, a man in the press box announced that voting for the game’s MVP had been expanded to include two more Sun Devils.
On a night ASU won its most important game since 1996, No. 17 was about the only Sun Devil not on the ballot.