What seemed to be a mixed group of mortals and fates or gods conspired Saturday night to keep Arizona State out of the Rose Bowl and put UCLA in.
Five strange plays were decisive on a night when the Arizona Wildcats’ offensive team took the evening off. Arizona’s kicking teams scored all 16 points in a 16-13 upset.
Moreover, all but three of the Wildcats’ points followed mistakes--their own, or ASU’s.
Before and after the ASU Sun Devils drove from midfield to get their only touchdown in the third quarter--when they led, 13-3--this was the strange-play sequence:
On their final drive of the first half, the Sun Devils advanced from midfield to the Arizona 17, where, with eight seconds left, they gambled with a pass, which was intercepted.
Forsaking a relatively easy 34-yard field goal that time, ASU Coach John Cooper strangely thought he could crowd in one more play.
Such a call in the last eight seconds would be considered bold by a pro team, if not foolhardy.
With a field goal there, the Sun Devils would have held a 6-3 halftime lead--for, maybe, a 16-16 final score. They needed only a tie for the Rose Bowl.
With a 13-3 lead in the third quarter, the Sun Devils elected to catch and run a punt from their 10-yard line.
Instead, it was fumbled into the end zone for Arizona’s only touchdown.
Against the Arizona State defense, Arizona’s offense had been, and continued to be, ineffective. For example, the Wildcats ran the ball 39 times Saturday night for 44 yards.
They were no threat to Arizona State with their offense. The Sun Devils were only a threat to themselves. A fair catch there would have made it nearly impossible for Arizona to provoke or recover a fumble and reduce Arizona State’s seemingly safe 13-3 lead.
Spanning the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth, the Sun Devils, who were much the better team, drove the ball from their 20-yard line to the Arizona five, where they missed a 22-yard field goal.
These three points would have given them a 16-10 lead--for, maybe, a final reading of 16-16.
A 22-yard field goal is approximately the distance of a conversion kick. In today’s football it is a routine play, normally. The ASU kicker is a 6-foot-4 freshman, Kent Bostrom, from Wheaton, Ill., Red Grange’s hometown.
When Max Zendejas attempted, and missed, a 52-yard field goal for Arizona in the fourth quarter, the left side of the Wildcat team appeared to move just before the snap.
Under the rules of football, this is considered a mandatory dead-ball foul--illegal procedure--meaning that the team offended against isn’t permitted to decide whether to take or decline the penalty.
Although the penalty was against Arizona, it was Arizona State that paid. Zendejas’ repeat try--from 57 yards--cleared the bar.
Thus, instead of taking possession at the ASU 35--with a 13-10 lead and the clock moving in the fourth quarter--the Sun Devils had been caught, 13-13. And after the kickoff, they had possession at the ASU 20 rather than the 35.
With 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, ASU controlled its own destiny. It was in a 13-13 tie--meaning it had a ticket to the Rose Bowl if there were no more points--and it had possession of the ball, which it had advanced 12 yards from the ASU 20 to the 32.
At that stage, after a first-down run, Cooper thought he had two choices:
--The high-risk choice was a shot at a first down with passes.
--The low-risk choice was to run the clock down some more and punt on fourth down.
ASU had averaged 42 yards punting against Arizona. From the Arizona State 35, a 42-yard punt would have put Arizona’s offense at a disadvantage with little more than two minutes remaining.
The Wildcats accomplished little on offense Saturday night. They were to finish with 186 yards running and passing, by comparison to Arizona State’s 362.
And they were to make only 10 first downs to ASU’s 23.
The only real threat to Arizona State, in other words, was Arizona State.
Still, Cooper gambled. On second down, he gambled and won--when Jeff Van Raaphorst’s pass was incomplete.
On third down, he gambled and lost--when the Wildcats sacked Van Raaphorst into a fumble and kicked the game-winning field goal. Taking aim on the Rose Bowl, ASU had thrown it away, and thrown UCLA in.