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The Freedom Bowl : Cox Is Catching, No Matter Who Is Throwing

Times Staff Writer

Finding a starting quarterback was the top priority of Arizona State’s football team going into spring practice this year. Ten weeks into the season, however, the search was still on. During one period midway through the season, four quarterbacks started in five weeks.

One factor remained constant, though. Whoever lined up behind center for the Sun Devils knew which direction to throw the ball in crucial situations. Arizona State may have been playing musical quarterbacks, but receiver Aaron Cox was dancing to his same old familiar tune.

Cox led the Sun Devils in receiving for the third straight year in 1987, averaging 20 yards a catch with 38 receptions for 760 yards, and was named to the All-Pacific 10 first team for the second year in a row.

It probably won’t make any difference when the NFL draft comes around--the scouts are well aware of what the 6-foot, 175-pound senior from Los Angeles’ Dorsey High School can do--but with a little stability at quarterback, Cox might have had a Heisman-Trophy-candidate-type year.

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His performance in Arizona State’s 33-28 Freedom Bowl victory over Air Force Wednesday night at Anaheim Stadium was a microcosm of Cox’s year. He caught 4 passes for 110 yards--including a 61-yard touchdown reception with 11 seconds left in the first half--but it could have been much, much better.

Twice, Cox blew past Falcon defenders on fly patterns, only to see quarterback Daniel Ford throw the ball short by 10 yards, once resulting in an interception. And, early in the third quarter, he completely lost cornerback Gary Kilmer (again) and caught an apparent 38-yard touchdown pass. The play was nullified when Fedel Underwood was called for holding.

“A penalty is a penalty, but, yeah, the other two plays were a little frustrating,” Cox said. “They were just basic streaks and I was wide open, but I think Danny got hit just as he threw both times.

“It’s funny, but that’s the way it’s been all year for us. We’ve been just that close to a really big season, but it just hasn’t clicked every time like it did last year.”

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Arizona State was 10-1-1 in 1986, capping the season with a 22-15 victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. (Cox had 6 catches for 104 yards in that one.) Wednesday’s Freedom Bowl victory was a game of mixed emotions for the Sun Devils. They closed a disappointing season with a victory, but lost Coach John Cooper, who told his players he was leaving after the game.

“The turning point in the game was the last play of the first half (Cox’ touchdown), no question,” Cooper said, when postgame questions finally switched from his impending move to Ohio State to the game. “You don’t often win a foot race with Aaron Cox and he ran by that kid.”

“That kid” was Kilmer, who had a nightmare of an evening that could have been much worse.

“Cox just outran us all night,” Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry said, “but the play at the end of the half really hurt. We were in the right coverage for them, but Cox just ran by us.”

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Ford, who had been watching Cox running around by himself much of the night, called the play--a play-action fake on first down--on the sidelines.

“It was good time for it and Cox really made a great play to make it work,” Ford said. “I heard their coaches yelling at him (Kilmer) to back up, but Aaron either tricked him or outran him, anyway.”

In any case, it was a key play and one that brought a rousing cheer from Cox’ personal rooting section, which included three parents (his father, stepmother and stepfather), five brothers, three sisters and a whole lot of friends.

“I was signing names on the ticket list left and right all week,” Cox said, smiling. “I can’t even remember how many, but I think just about everyone showed up.”

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It was almost like the days at Dorsey, where Cox averaged 23 yards a catch and had 16 career touchdowns. Dorsey finished 11-1 his senior year . . . a record the Sun Devils thought might be just about right for them at the beginning of this season.

“We started switching quarterbacks and the timing was just, well, bad,” Cox said. “It was really hard to adjust. Early in the year, I’d get open and there was nobody who could get the ball to me. It was frustrating. I’d go off to the sidelines and scream and stamp my feet.

“But I started to get more patient as the season went on. If Ford didn’t get the ball to me on one play, I knew we’d get the big hit the next time.”

Cox finished his career at Arizona State second on the Sun Devils’ all-time receiving yardage list with 2,584 and third on the all-time reception list with 132.

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