Wrangler News special by Andrew Lwowski, Cover photo courtesy of Zac BonDurant, House of Sparky.
Thirty-six is the difference in points scored between the No. 15-ranked Arizona Wildcats and the lowly 3-9 Arizona State Sun Devils in the 97th Territorial Cup. However, the fundamental differences between the two programs are not as wide as those on the scoreboard.
Three years ago, before Arizona found itself ranked and before it beat four ranked opponents in a single season, Arizona found itself in the same situation as the Sun Devils are in currently: Suffering a humiliating 70-7 loss in the Territorial Cup, which ushered in the hire and rebuild for Jedd Fisch. It was a necessary evil Arizona took to grow and one Arizona State is now embracing.
The Wildcats, led by freshman quarterback Noah Fifita’s 527 passing yards, returned the favor of a lopsided Territorial Cup loss and Arizona lit up the Sun Devils for 619 total yards of offense with seven touchdowns behind its 59-23 win. It was ugly, and it marked rock bottom for Arizona State as a fitting end to a rather unordinary season. Although, Dillingham pointed out one silver lining that is Arizona State won the same number of games this season as it did last, despite all the adversity. Dillingham will now embrace the throes of establishing a culture in hopes to mirror the success in Tucson.
“I didn’t take this job and expect to go win eight games,” Dillingham said. “So, the buy-in, what we’re doing and the direction we’re going, 100 percent. It’s the direction that needs to be headed, it’s what needed to be done this year even though it’s not fun to lose games this year. It’s not fun for all of this stuff, sometimes it’s needed. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to bounce back up and where we were as a program in the direction we’re going. “I have 1000 percent confidence that the ball’s bouncing up, not down.”
The players have been buying in, and it showed in the second half in the loss to No. 6 Oregon and the second half of the Territorial Cup. The Sun Devils displayed grit and fight by finding the end zone twice more, including an interception by linebacker Tre Brown at the goal line, to prevent the Wildcats from running up the scoreboard. Getting the players to fight and trust the process is the first stepping stone of building a program.
Brown, who has been a part of five separate programs, said he sees a bright future under Dillingham. “This is the first culture I genuinely bought into whether it was the weight room, whether it was the playbook on defense, whether it was special teams and just believing in what coach echoes every day,” he said.” The culture that coach has built is only going to get stronger and bigger. And I’m just saying for the future man, it’s going to be something to see.”
It’s not easy to pin-point progress after a threewin season, but matching last season’s win total during the most tumultuous season that included a bowl ban, the athletic director resigning and rotating between five players at quarterback is Now with Year 0 complete, Dillingham said his off-season plans are to fundraise, because “that’s what the name of the game is now” while his staff recruit.
As Dillingham prepares for year 2 and so on, the program will more directly reflect his leadership as he is in control of everything that comes through, contrary to the NFL. More importantly, Dillingham said, is a successful program starts with the donors and support, so that is where his attention will be.