Arizona State loses the Territorial Cup to close the book on an era of lows (2024)

TUCSON — Is this the bottom for Arizona State? If not, it’s close. The Sun Devils fans who were honest with themselves should have seen this coming.

The final stop on the Herm Edwards train will arrive once the NCAA rules on the alleged recruiting violations of Edwards and his staff. That decision is expected next year.

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But this was a final gut punch for 2022: losing to rival Arizona, 38-35, to snap a streak of five consecutive Arizona State wins in the series, including a 70-7 rout on this same field in 2020. No matter what Arizona State fans had experienced — the NCAA probe, the roster turnover, the early-season coaching change — the Sun Devils at least had state superiority, ownership of the Territorial Cup.

Not anymore.

The game featuring five lead changes, the outcome teetering until the final minutes. But it also symbolized two programs trending in opposite directions.

Arizona State finishes 3-9 and 2-7 in the Pac-12, with its worst winning percentage of the modern era. Arizona, which won just one game last season, finishes 5-7 and 3-6. One game doesn’t erase the past five seasons, but in the moment it represented something important: a changing of the guard.

You’re mistaken if you don’t think this matters. In the postgame news conference, Arizona State senior linebacker Kyle Soelle, with scratches on his neck and eye black smeared all over his face, apologized to fans. Interim head coach Shaun Aguano did the same.

“It’s disappointing, especially for all the Sun Devils out there,’’ Aguano said. “This Cup means so much to them and it means so much to those guys in the locker room and so much to me. I just want to apologize for not keeping it.”

In many ways, Friday’s loss also ends the Edwards era.

Arizona State soon will name its next coach, and the buzz points to Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, a Phoenix native and Arizona State graduate who worked in support roles under previous head coach Todd Graham. At 32, Dillingham would become the country’s youngest Power 5 head coach, a complete reversal from the 68-year-old Edwards, who was dismissed after a Week 3 loss to Eastern Michigan amid a cloud of NCAA uncertainty.

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Oregon plays rival Oregon State on Saturday, with a chance to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 title game. After a months-long search process, the Sun Devils could introduce their new leader as soon as Sunday.

A new coach will bring a burst of energy and begin a new chapter. But he won’t solve everything. The cracks in Arizona State football run deep. A significant part of the fan base has lost confidence in vice president of athletics Ray Anderson, who hired Edwards, his friend, then told reporters the program was in a better place after the coach was dismissed in September.

This has had a ripple effect. Arizona State has its diehards, but it also has fans who have to see to believe. For a while, belief in this program has been a difficult sell. The turnout for last Saturday’s home finale against Oregon State, a sendoff for the seniors, was lacking. In other games this season, the bulk of the crowd left at halftime. This has affected the program’s push into college football’s name, image and likeness era.

In addition, some high-profile former players feel like they have been alienated from the program.

“I just challenge Sun Devil Nation, whoever the next head coach is of this program, whether it’s Coach Aguano or whoever they bring in, let’s step up our game,” Soelle said. “Let’s really be a championship contender. Let’s back NIL. Let’s back the team. … Let’s be the best we can be.”

This is nothing new for Arizona State. For years, the expectations surrounding this program have been a local and national discussion point. Locally, the “sleeping giant” question is stale. Nationally, it surfaces nearly every year.

In a recent interview with The Athletic, former Arizona State cornerback Eric Allen, who played 14 NFL seasons, put it this way: “We should have the type of program that wins eight or nine games every year. And then every four years when your class comes up, we should have a top-10 team that at the end of the year is playing meaningful games.”

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Allen is on a group text with about 40 former Arizona State players. He said people on the text thread started discussing rumors of Arizona State’s alleged recruiting misdeeds before the investigation even went public. The group text consensus: Let’s clean house and get started on rebuilding. That was a long time ago.

“For us, it was just a matter of, ‘Who’s going to be our next coach?’” Allen said. “And that started maybe a year and a half, two years ago.”

In hindsight, this team didn’t have much of a chance. Offseason roster turnover — some of it due to a lack of local NIL opportunities — robbed Arizona State of key players. The NCAA investigation led to the departure of last season’s coordinators (Antonio Pierce and Zak Hill) and the arrival of two new ones. Defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson, previously on Edwards’ staff but in a different role, had considered retirement before his promotion. Offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas, who came from UNLV, struggled and ultimately lost play-calling responsibilities.

Into this storm stepped Aguano, the program’s running backs coach and a local high school coaching legend. He produced an upset of No. 21 Washington. He prioritized in-state recruiting. He kept the Sun Devils together under difficult circ*mstances. He made his mark.

Asked if he knew this was his last game as Arizona State’s head coach, Aguano said, “I’m a pretty smart guy.” It’s “a win business,” he added, his voice breaking. He understands. Asked if he would be open to remaining on staff, a popular position among the state’s high school coaches, Aguano said Arizona State’s administration and new coach would make that decision. But, he added, he’s not an ego guy.

“I’m always going to be a Sun Devil,” Aguano said. “This is one of the greatest things that have happened in my life, and my family’s life. We made a difference. But we didn’t get it done, so there’s going to be a lot of disappointed people in me for not bringing back that Territorial Cup. I’ll take that. But I love those kids in that room, man.”

One Arizona State football chapter ended Friday, a conclusion that seemed inevitable. Another will open soon. But that will just be a starting point.

(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Arizona State loses the Territorial Cup to close the book on an era of lows (1)Arizona State loses the Territorial Cup to close the book on an era of lows (2)

Doug Haller is a senior writer based in Arizona. He previously worked 13 years at The Arizona Republic, where he covered three Final Fours and four football national championship games. He is a five-time winner of the Arizona Sportswriter of the Year award. Follow Doug on Twitter @DougHaller

Arizona State loses the Territorial Cup to close the book on an era of lows (2024)
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