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December 3, 2010

Sun Devils earn thrilling win in Tucson

TUCSON -- It's hard to pick the moment that signified it best. Linebacker Brandon Magee cried. Gerald Munns spilled his heart with no restraint to a horde of reporters. Quarterback Brock Osweiler called his team to the corner of the endzone so they could watch as kicker Thomas Weber pounded Sparky's pitchfork into the trampled turf.

It doesn't matter which you choose, because in Arizona State's thrilling 30-29 double-overtime victory over the rival Wildcats at sold-out Arizona Stadium Thursday, those snapshots and so many others painted the same picture in a game that had everything.

"This is the best feeling I've ever had," said Magee, who finished with a game-high 13 tackles in ASU's first win over its rival since 2007. "The best feeling I've ever had."

Many players repeated a similar sentiment after a game that had all you'd want in this hotly contested rivalry. A first half with enough punts to make Ray Guy grin and staunch defense that included ASU's second first-half shutout of the season. There was a last-minute scoring drive. There were blocked extra points. There was jubilation. There was despair.

Those final emotions happened on the final play of a marathon clash. After UA receiver David Douglas scored on a 9-yard screen pass to match ASU's touchdown on the first possession of the second overtime, kicker Alex Zendejas lined up for the point-after attempt, only about half an hour removed from having a would-be game-winning point-after kick blocked. The nightmare struck again, as Zendejas' kick went into the back of one of his lineman and then off of ASU defensive end James Brooks before sailing wide right. The Sun Devils stormed the field in sheer ecstasy, as if three seasons of frustration had been erased in one night.

"I started crying a little bit," Magee said. "I'm not a girl -- not a sissy -- but I'm not going to lie, I cried a little bit when we won. It's the best feeling ever."

Before the thrills, ASU was almost buried at the pinnacle of heartbreak, a hard-to-believe fact for a team that has experienced so much of it. With a 20-14 lead with a little less than three minutes UA quarterback Nick Foles marched his team down the field with devastating efficiency. The here-we-go-again dread felt by among Sun Devil faithful was thick as it oozed toward the sidelines. When Foles found David Douglas in the end zone from 5 yards out to tie the score at 20 with less than 30 seconds left, the Sun Devils appeared sunk.

Magee didn't think so. He said he knew what was coming next.

"To tell you the truth, I had a feeling we were going to block the (point-after) kick, so I never doubted it," the junior said. "You don't have to believe me, but I'm just telling you the truth."

The truth is, on a play called "crazy right," junior James Brooks lept up, stretched ever inch of his 6-foot-6 frame and blocked a point after that was likely an afterthought for the home fans.

"That's why you recruit 6-(foot)-7 guys," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said.

The unlikely play sent the game to overtime where the madness was only just beginnng. A goal-line stand for the ASU defense in the first overtime forced a short UA field goal, and ASU kicker Thomas Weber, who erased all his senior-season struggles with a storybook 5-for-5 performance, nailed a 40-yard field goal with the Zona Zoo at a fever pitch to push the game into a second overtime.

"The whole team was rolling and that's kind of how I felt," Weber said of his thought process heading into his final kick.

He booted the ball into a sea of red, setting the stage for the heart-pounding second overtime.

"Our guys have fought all season and we've had a lot of close games," Erickson said. "It's nice to get the football gods on our side. Well, at least the extra-point gods. If you weren't coaching that game, it had to be a lot of fun to watch."

The Sun Devils had an uphill battle before having a chance to take a bow. They took a 6-0 lead into halftime after 30 minutes of football that featured enough punts to require a calculator. The Wildcats vaunted passing attack found it's groove in the third quarter, with Foles connecting with star wide receiver Juron Criner on third-quarter touchdown passes of 28 and 52 to give the Wildcats a 14-6 lead.

But Osweiler, who struggled mightly at times to find receivers, found ways to bring the Sun Devils back. He scrambled - his 56 yards rushing would have been far more if it weren't for being sacked six times - bounding his way toward first downs in the face of a relentless rush by UA defensive ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed.

At the end of the third quarter, Osweiler found Kerry Taylor -- who finished his career with a 6-catch, 112-yard performance - for a 54-yard touchdown down the sideline that set up Weber's third goal, which cut the score to 14-9.

"We never quit," said Osweiler, who finished 22-of-49 passing for 267 yards. "We played a little sloppy in the first half, but we got settled down and came out in the second half and proved to everybody that we weren't going to quit and we were going to win this football."

Following Weber's field goal, it was the defense's turn to step up. Linebacker Oliver Aaron stripped UA running back Greg Nwoko and recovered the fumble himself at midfield.

The effort amazed one of his linebacking mates.

"Oliver Aaron had a stinger and throws his shoulder out, comes back in for a series, defeats a block, gets the tackle, rips the ball out and recovers it all on one play," senior Gerald Munns said. "He's an animal."

Osweiler and the offense capitalized, ending a 12-play, 51-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Mike Willie. A pass to Kerry Taylor for the two-point conversion put ASU up 17-14.

The ASU defense held UA on a 4th-and-1 from its on 29 on the next series and capitalized with another Weber field goal, ensuring the Wildcats would need a touchdown on their final drive.

As of late Thursday night, it was unclear if the Sun Devils had played their final game of the season. The NCAA is expected to announce a decision Friday as to whether it will grant a waiver that would allow ASU to play in a bowl game.

But all that was far from minds of the players and coaches on a December night in Tucson.

"We've worked so hard, and we've never given up," Taylor said, before he greeted dozens of fans staying long into the night to congratulate their team. "I feel like this is what we were destined to do."


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