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November 29, 2009In some perverse way, it all made perfect sense; A flawed end to a failed season.
Facing its archrival from Tucson, the Arizona State football team fumbled away its sixth straight loss on Saturday, falling 20-17 on a field goal as time expired.
"I'm kind of lost for words," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said.
Trailing 14-0 by halftime, the Sun Devils rallied behind senior quarterback Danny Sullivan to tie the game at 17-17 with about two minutes left.
UA promptly went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, putting the ball in ASU's court.
But that's when disaster struck.
Senior wide receiver Kyle Williams -- whose pair of touchdown catches had kept ASU afloat to that point -- muffed the punt return, giving UA the ball on ASU's 22-yard line with 1:03 to play.
"To have it happen like that," said Sullivan, fighting back tears, "to a guy who's worked so hard this year to get to where he wants to be and where he's been; he made two big plays for us; he's my best friend and I just feel so sorry for him that it had to come out that way for this team."
After Williams' fumble, UA nursed the ball, setting up Alex Zendejas' game-winning try as the clock hit zeroes. Zendejas, of course, is the nephew of former UA kicker Max Zendejas and ASU kicking legend Luis Zendejas.
Saturday was an eerie recall to the Territorial Cup game played in 1983, when Max Zendejas knocked through a game-winning field goal as time expired in to give his team a 17-15 win.
True to form, ASU's defense buoyed the team on Saturday, while its offensive ineptitude sank the ship.
Sophomore quarterback Samson Szakacsy started the game and started it well, throwing a 44-yard pass to Williams on ASU's first play from scrimmage. But the ASU offense sputtered after that, and Sullivan replaced Szakacsy midway through the second quarter.
"I just felt [Szakacsy] didn't have any pace going," Erickson said. "Obviously, it's only my opinion - and it's the only one that counts. It seemed like he was just running out of there quick, he just didn't have any rhythm."
After Szakacsy's initial pass, the ASU offense gained just 15 yards for the rest of the first half.
It's not like the UA offense was much better, though. Save for sophomore running back Keola Antolin's 67-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter, the Wildcats were held in check all game. Beside that drive, UA only recorded one series longer than 22 yards for the entire afternoon.
"All year, we've never given up," ASU senior linebacker Travis Goethel said. "We keep fighting, but shit just doesn't turn out for us. It's depressing, man."
But UA received a huge boost from its special teams before the half, as Orlando Vargas blocked a punt scooped it up and ran it in for his team's second touchdown.
Trailing 14-3 in the second half, the Sun Devils finally scored a touchdown near the beginning of the fourth quarter. Sullivan connected with Williams, who streaked down the right sideline for a 44-yard score.
But Williams took off his helmet while celebrating in the end zone and was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. After the game, Sullivan said the team would have went for a two-point conversion to try and cut the deficit to three points. With the penalty, though, ASU just kicked an extra point to make it 14-10.
Zendejas made a 30-yard field goal on the ensuing drive, setting the stage for ASU's game-tying drive a few minutes later.
Following a punt, ASU took over on UA's 48-yard line with 5:48 to play. Ultimately, Sullivan and company faced a fourth down on UA's 14-yard line.
In an act of skilled improvisation, Sullivan was flushed out of the pocket and connected with Williams, who made a diving grab in the back of the end zone with 2:02 left.
"It was a play that we drew up, actually, right before I walked out to the huddle," Sullivan said. "The players thought it was going to be one play and I changed it up on them and it worked."
Despite finishing with game highs of nine catches, 130 yards and two touchdowns, Williams' final game may very well be remembered for the muffed punt.
As the ball spiraled through the wind, rain and even hail of the late November Arizona sky, Williams appeared to hesitate. After initially backing off the ball, Williams stepped up to it at the last second. As a result, the ball bounced off him and into the hands of UA gunner Mike Turner.
Moments later, UA players stormed the field, celebrating the buzzer-beating win and starting a post-game scuffle at midfield.
"It's basically the season where nothing went our way," Sullivan said. "It's not fair."